Network Connection: Fair Credit

By Philip Baczewski, executive director, University Information Technology

Social creditPerhaps you've seen news about China's developing national social credit system. Based on a plan released in 2014, the Chinese social credit score system would aim to reward "good behavior" while providing negative reinforcement for anti-social or irresponsible actions. Under the social credit score system, those with high scores may receive privileged treatment, while those with low scores may be considered "deadbeats." Aiming to be fully implemented in 2020, this new system could be seen as discouraging corruption or promoting behavior such as stopping your car when pedestrians cross the street. On the other hand, it might also be viewed as the ultimate authoritarian method for controlling a population by labeling government criticism as antisocial behavior.

It seems that the flip side of this social credit-scoring scheme is the financial credit scoring system we live with in our U.S. capitalist society. Credit scores in the U.S. determine whether we can buy a house, rent an apartment, rent a car, get a job, and who knows what else. Rather than targeting social critics, our capitalist credit-score system disadvantages those who do not have the ready capital or ability to build a record of financial behavior. Under the financial credit-score system, those with high scores may receive privileged treatment, while those with low scores may be considered "deadbeats." Therefore, when a major operator of this credit-scoring system fails to protect individuals' information used to assign such scores, you would think there would be major consequences for that operator. ("Crickets".)

Do You Rate?

Online reputation managementOn the internet, there's at least one other credit system in use and developing. Reputational credit is a hot commodity these days, and so you are constantly being asked to provide your feedback on an online purchase or service experience. Online reputation management is not a new thing on the internet. In fact, it seems to have grown into a whole industry as more and more information is available for online consumption. As a 2016 Money magazine article stated, "These days every transaction or relationship can be graded or rated, and the masses regard this ability as essential to their rights as empowered consumers. ... It’s like a new version of Murphy’s Law: Everything that can be rated will be." The article goes on to point out that ratings are sometimes meaningless because the methodology and circumstance of ratings tend to inflate the outcome.

For example, Uber's ride service app provides the opportunity to rate the driver and trip experience. However, it's also well known that a low rating could lead to a driver losing their opportunity to work for Uber. So, it seems that there's an unintended social pressure to overlook issues complicated by the fact that the driver also rates you, the passenger. Should your driver's rating of you determine your rating of them or vice versa? Should their rating of you determine your likelihood of getting a ride? How long before all businesses rate their customers?

Five gold starsReviews are now ubiquitous on the internet. Search for a lawn-mowing service on Google, and the resulting suggestions will come with a one-to-five-star review. Search for a restaurant on Yelp, and you'll see the stars. Buy a product from any online site from Amazon to Zappos and it will come with an online rating. According to one source, 90 percent of customers read an online review before visiting a business. But there are plenty of reasons not to trust online reviews as well. Perhaps artificial intelligence, AI, will save the day.

For the Record

\Whether you realize it or not, social media is an online reputation engine. Social media values you by your "follows" or your "likes." You gain status when you are retweeted or reposted. More "likes" mean more social credibility. Posts on Facebook now become part of your permanent record and will haunt you if you ever want a job or to run for public office. If you have any social media presence, you have an implicit online reputation.

So, I can imagine a world where your social media, online commerce, reviews of you as a customer, and your customer reviews all come together in an AI generated reputational credit score. Under the reputational credit score system, those with high scores may receive privileged treatment, while those with low scores may be considered "deadbeats." Since we are increasingly dependent upon the online world to support our physical existence, it would seem that the reputational credit score system will privilege those with online savvy and disadvantage those without online access. Will this brave new world make us yearn for the good old days of 1984?

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