Social Scoring To Social Cooling: Moving Targets Of Modern Privacy

China's 'social scoring' system, with punishments for nonconformist actions and rewards for good behavior, changes human interaction. Germans know a thing or two about the high stakes of privacy protection.

Keeping score?
Andrian Kreye

MUNICH — There is already a phrase to describe the long-term effects of the constant, systematic monitoring of our online behavior: "social cooling." The term, coined by Dutch digital advisor and self-declared "privacy designer" Tijmen Schep, refers to all the — mainly unconscious — changes that people make to their behavior when they realize that their good reputation is just as valuable a resource as the data they so freely give away.

There are some positive aspects to this. Studies have shown that on average young people today are far better behaved than in the past. There are fewer teen pregnancies, crime rates are lower, and alcoholism, drug abuse and smoking are all down. For parents and guardians, whose legal duty of care makes them into a kind of mini Big Brother-state, this might not be such bad news.

Thousands of aspects of our lives are monitored and evaluated every single day.

The flip side is a rise in conformity. This doesn't only mean conforming to the law, but also conforming to societal expectations, whether in terms of politics, career or just the people around us. Because when someone knows that every post they share on social networks can take on a life of its own, and that their lifestyle can have consequences for their insurance and banking, they tend to be more careful about how they express themselves, to live more healthily and to take fewer financial risks.

A study by insurance company Ergo and researchers from the Harding Center showed that around one-fifth of Germans think it wouldn't be such a bad thing to have an online monitoring system where citizens acquire social points, as in China. But this kind of system already exists in the West. As customers, users and citizens, we have thousands of aspects of our lives monitored and evaluated every single day.

A warning — Photo: ev

Six years ago, former NSA employee Edward Snowden's revelations about the worldwide surveillance system used by American and other Western secret services triggered the debate about online privacy. It was further fueled by reports of the Chinese social credit system and findings about how Silicon Valley harvests and uses our personal data, leading to the "techlash", a wave of outrage that spread throughout the general public against all types of digital surveillance, whether private or state-sponsored.

However, so far there hasn't been much more than outrage. The issue has been raised in the political sphere, at least in Europe, but it is met with vague counterarguments: claims that good citizens have nothing to hide, that data protection is bad for business and an obstacle to progress. The mass phenomenon of social cooling is so far going under the radar.

But the right to privacy is a human right, protected in Germany by Article 2 of the constitution and in Europe by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights. It is even set out in the U.S. Constitution. That only seems to apply to American citizens, however, as the internet is essentially an American invention; and this makes it difficult for the rest of the world to protect its rights online.

Like every basic human right, the right to privacy was hard-won.

The other big problem is that giving up the right to privacy and the right to own your own data, photos and posts tends to be hidden away in the endless swathes of terms and conditions that tech giants use to bypass our rights and regulations.

Like every basic human right, the right to privacy was hard-won. From ancient times right up to the emergence of the middle class, it was a privilege that belonged only to the rich and powerful. It was only during the dictatorships of the 20th century that we realized maintaining the right to privacy is an important way of protecting citizens against all kinds of injustice. That remains true today, whether you want to travel to the United States or get health insurance.

Giving up a basic human right in exchange for the ease and comfort of online services is a step backwards, not forwards. In Western democracies at least, the past was much darker than the present, and we don't want to return to it. Therefore data protection and individuals' sovereignty over their own data must be a basic human right.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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