Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle
George Mason University Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 12-09
78 Pages Posted: 29 Feb 2012 Last revised: 18 Feb 2013
Date Written: February 28, 2012
Fear is an extremely powerful motivating force, especially in public policy debates where it is used in an attempt to sway opinion or bolster the case for action. Often, this action involves preemptive regulation based on false assumptions and evidence. Such fears are frequently on display in the Internet policy arena and take the form of full-blown 'technopanic,' or real-world manifestations of this illogical fear. While it’s true that cyberspace has its fair share of troublemakers, there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society.
This paper considers the structure of fear appeal arguments in technology policy debates and then outlines how those arguments can be deconstructed and refuted in both cultural and economic contexts. Several examples of fear appeal arguments are offered with a particular focus on online child safety, digital privacy, and cybersecurity. The various factors contributing to 'fear cycles' in these policy areas are documented.
To the extent that these concerns are valid, they are best addressed by ongoing societal learning, experimentation, resiliency, and coping strategies rather than by regulation. If steps must be taken to address these concerns, education and empowerment-based solutions represent superior approaches to dealing with them compared to a precautionary principle approach, which would limit beneficial learning opportunities and retard technological progress.
Keywords: technopanics, panic, precautionary, principle, privacy, child, safety, online, digital, internet, reguation, third-person effect, media, news, generational, nostalgia, risk, market power, technology, digital, cyberlaw, pessimism
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