Tech companies automate autocratic media in China around the world

A troubling trend is sweeping Silicon Valley—big tech acquiescing to digital authoritarianism to gain access to the Chinese market.

In July, Apple removed VPNs from its Chinese app store and announced plans to build a data center in Guizhou to comply with China’s new draconian cybersecurity laws.

This follows Facebook’s decision months earlier to build a tool that allowed third-parties in China to suppress controversial content on its network.  While these moves can be rationalized from most business perspectives, acquiescing to China’s digitally authoritarian policies for market access will have harrowing political consequences in the long term.

Apple and Facebook, two of the most powerful companies in the world, have set dangerous precedents in these decisions that risk being followed both in and outside of the tech industry. When big tech bends its principles to limbo into Chinese markets, it encourages other Western companies and institutions to do so as well.

The latest example is Cambridge University Press.  The prominent publishing house recently removed hundreds of academic articles from the website of its publications China Quarterly and the Journal of Asian Studies, in response to Chinese authorities deeming them controversial. After outcry from academics and researchers, Cambridge University Press reversed its decision – but the fact remains that they were willing to censor peer-reviewed academic research.

At best, such decisions risk entrenching the status quo – China has already ranked as the lowest in the world in Internet freedom for two years running.  At worst, these moves encourage the omnipotent aspirations of the Chinese government to build a digital dictatorship.

Chinese AI research and production is set tosupersede the US in the next few decades, especially given President Trump and the GOP’s refusal to recognize the importance of scientific R&D and blue-sky research. Given this outlook, Western tech companies must consider the social ramifications of their involvement in China.

It’s undeniable that the Party may be on the brink of unprecedented automated repression – extremely few companies control the most popular apps in China, and – as experts like Richard McGregor have shown – the Chinese Communist Party always has its hands in the country’s most successful businesses. The possibilities that would exist – such as automated mining of publicly and privately available data coupled with mass sentiment analysis to predict and quell dissent in advance – have horrifying implications for human rights. Repressive governance could, to a large extent, become an automated affair.

China has already implemented a frightening citizenship score pilot program,  which gives each citizen a “social credit score”. It is also known that markedly more scrupulous governments, from Mexico to Ecuador and Venezuela, have deployed surveillance and intelligence systems against political opposition. The possibility of AI autocracy in the People’s Republic is real, and it is one that Western tech companies are tacitly endorsing when they choose to forfeit digital rights in favor of market access.

It would also be naïve to assume this form AI autocracy will stay put in the Middle Kingdom. Authoritarians have a way of sharing repressive technology – which is why ones of Egypt’s biggest telecoms companies, Orascom, owns 75% of North Korea’s only official mobile network, Koryolink. It is also why China’s cellphone company Huawei helped Iranian security forces to stifle dissent at home.

Two-thirds of all internet users worldwide live in countries where criticism of the authorities is subject to censorship. It would be reasonable, with this in mind, to assume that China’s AI authoritarian model—if successful—could become the soft-power the country has lacked on the world stage up to now.

The Economist rightfully pointed out in July:

Western companies are at least engaged in an open debate about the ethical implications of AI; and intelligence agencies are constrained by democratic institutions. Neither is true of China. [..] If China ends up having most influence over its future, then the state, not citizens, may be the biggest beneficiary”.

In an era where the leader of the free world is emboldening authoritarians on everything from reneging on human rights to slanderously impugning the press, the onus falls on civil society and the private sector to maintain and promote liberal democratic values at home and abroad. Western tech companies are one of the most powerful actors in the latter sphere, and also fund many in the former. This puts them in a unique position to promote privacy, security and digital rights around the world.

The social and political consequences of technology are externalities that must be accounted for. It is impossible to decouple business decisions in the tech community from responsibility for the consequences that result from them, especially as technology continues to play an ever more crucial role in individuals’ daily lives.