The case for publicly enforced online rights

The reputation economy, long prophesied by business gurus, has arrived with a bang. Within the span of a single month, several technology companies have embraced reputation-driven systems: Facebook and Apple now assign users a reputation score, a measure of their trustworthiness, while Uber has banned passengers with low ratings from using its app (for now, only in Australia and New Zealand).

While other industries already rely on similar systems, their embrace by the digital world is no trivial development. The anarchic egalitarianism of the early digital culture — a messy byproduct of online anonymity, undeveloped businesses models and the countercultural heritage of the Bay Area — has given way to a more hierarchical world order.

Forced to choose sides in the “ fake news” wars, Facebook and its peers are in a double bind. On the one hand, to police their platforms aggressively is to risk alienating their most controversial and valuable voices. To do nothing is to attract public ire over their chronic social aloofness.

A credible reputation system, based on users’ interactions with each other and the quality of their social connections, might help legitimise thorny editorial decisions while reducing the visibility of bots and bogus accounts.

The plan might work but not without unforeseen political consequences.

While many fear digital Balkanisation, whereby governments turn the internet into a “splinternet” of nationally determined standards, a similar process is afoot in the private sector. As tech platforms produce different quantitative readings of our selves, our online identity also becomes fragmented, foreclosing the possibility of establishing meaningful digital rights.

Unlike the real world, where the concept of citizenship implies socio-economic rights such as guaranteed access to healthcare or education, the digital world relies on a different, private mechanism. Digital rights, as they exist today, are a misnomer: hardly the sum total of guarantees enshrined in constitutions, they are just a bundle of permissions granted by technology platforms.

When anonymity ruled the digital world, such permissions were granted to everyone. Today, they are increasingly based on invisible reputation scores, which follow us everywhere and shape our daily trajectories.

Any effective system of democratic rights presupposes a modicum of popular sovereignty to enforce them. When that sovereignty is parcelled out among corporations, the system no longer deals with rights but with permissions. And those can be easily revoked.

What, then, of the early internet utopia of no hierarchies and social distinctions? Its proponents erred by insisting on keeping the state out of their digital paradise. That empty space, however, didn’t stay empty for long: corporations moved in and went about their business. Today’s fragmented digital identity system is the result.

A different approach has emerged in China, where the government pushed technology companies to develop the “social credit” system— a centralised form of reputation scoring. “Social credit” evaluates one’s suitability for a loan but also has more sinister uses. For instance, those with low scores might be banned from boarding flights.

One does not need to admire China’s rulers to notice that they have reasserted sovereignty in the digital domain in a way than many democracies have not. “Social credit” can surely lead to authoritarian excesses but so can democracies’ reliance on private reputation systems that stand to weaken cherished constitutional guarantees.

Instead of flirting with privately run reputation systems, democracies should establish a single public infrastructure for the digital identity. Like the passport system, it should be the prerogative of the state, with an independent agency auditing its algorithms and promoting privacy-aware, decentralised solutions. It should stipulate conditions of access, so that companies, government agencies and municipalities can tap into this identity system in lieu of reputation scores.

Most digital services, after all, only need to know that we are of age and that we are in good legal standing. A public registry can answer these questions without scoring us. Instead of ranking our every trip or stay, Uber and Airbnb would see our “verified” status and proceed accordingly.

Technology platforms will not embrace such ideas. But their users might. For all the fears of government surveillance, we are still better off under a state-enforced system of digital rights than under complete submission to the whims of today’s tech barons.