American institutions are taking anti-Russian sanctions into their own hands, further normalizing a financial social credit system that can ostracize users for holding unacceptable beliefs — a move purported to punish Russia but that actually evokes the authoritarian country’s own system of tracking its citizens’ political views.
Visa and Mastercard have suspended operations in Russia over the country’s invasion of Ukraine, blocking “cards issued by Russian banks from working in other countries and block[ing] people with cards issued elsewhere from purchasing goods and services from companies in Russia.” American Express has also dropped its Russian operations. Meanwhile, tech companies like Apple and Microsoft have ceased sales of their products in the country.
It could be tempting to cheer the move for targeting Russia’s authoritarian regime and condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attacks on the people of Ukraine. But the actions by private companies against Russians are part of a larger swing by U.S. corporations to deny services to those whose opinions they deem unacceptable — and that’s exactly the kind of social credit system Russia is building to impose on its own people.
Moscow will use “digital profiles” to track citizens’ “loyalty,” according to a Moscow Times 2020 report. “Moscow City Hall has since 2017 been collecting the gender, age, income level and relationship to other people signed up to its mos.ru website as part of the internet activity monitoring system,” the report notes. “The digital profiles will now include information about Muscovites’ violations, fines, debts and participation in various events, according to the cited documentation.”
Lest you think the system is limited to the capital city, Russian officials have said that 80 percent of Russians will have such a digital profile by 2025 through the government’s $53 billion Digital Economy Program.
And now, with Visa and Mastercard cutting ties, Russian banks are turning to China — a country with an even more invasive social credit system. The Chinese Communist Party tracks its people’s economic decisions and even things like being a good or bad driver to reward or punish behavior.
Punishment might include anything from slower internet speeds to being barred from flying or staying in certain hotels. There have also been reports of people being denied higher education and having their pets confiscated.
If you think comparisons between Russia and China’s authoritarian credit systems and the increasing dragnet in the United States are outlandish, just think about how Mastercard and American Express blocked donations to Americans whose beliefs about the 2020 election were found unacceptable, while Visa’s political action committee used the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021 to “temporarily suspend all political donations.” Paypal, Venmo, and Shopify all went after people who were supposedly involved in the riot.
Just last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cracked down on truckers who were protesting Covid mandates, freezing hundreds of bank accounts purported to be associated with the peaceful protest. Crowdsourcing fundraising platform GoFundMe confiscated millions of dollars from protest organizers.
Previously, GoFundMe suspended a fundraising campaign for Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of all charges after he shot three men in self-defense. The platform also used the Jan. 6 riot to nix fundraisers for “travel to a political event where there’s risk of violence by the attendees,” and those that “spread misinformation about the election, promote conspiracy theories and contribute to or participate in attacks on U.S. democracy.”
Meanwhile, Big Tech companies use their powers of censorship to shut down users whose speech is deemed unacceptable, and to nuke alternative platforms from app stores.
We shouldn’t cheer U.S. firms for appointing themselves the arbiters of who deserves to participate in our economy (and by extension, our society). If they can do it to Russia, they can do it to you.
But we also shouldn’t cheer such actions because they move us one step closer to blurring the line between ourselves and the authoritarian tyrants we purport to denounce. If we defeat Russia or China by making our differences unrecognizable, we’ve already lost.