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The Myth of the Superuser: Fear, Risk, and Harm Online

77 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2007 Last revised: 23 Dec 2013

Paul Ohm

Georgetown University Law Center

Abstract

Fear of the powerful computer user, "the Superuser," dominates debates about online conflict. This mythic figure is difficult to find, immune to technological constraints, and aware of legal loopholes. Policymakers, fearful of his power, too often overreact, passing overbroad, ambiguous laws intended to ensnare the Superuser, but which are used instead against inculpable, ordinary users. This response is unwarranted because the Superuser is often a marginal figure whose power has been greatly exaggerated.

The exaggerated attention to the Superuser reveals a pathological characteristic of the study of power, crime, and security online, which springs from a widely-held fear of the Internet. Building on the social science fear literature, this Article challenges the conventional wisdom and standard assumptions about the role of experts. Unlike dispassionate experts in other fields, computer experts are as susceptible as lay-people to exaggerate the power of the Superuser, in part because they have misapplied Larry Lessig's ideas about code.

The experts in computer security and Internet law have failed to deliver us from fear, resulting in overbroad prohibitions, harms to civil liberties, wasted law enforcement resources, and misallocated economic investment. This Article urges policymakers and partisans to stop using tropes of fear; calls for better empirical work on the probability of online harm; and proposes an anti-Precautionary Principle, a presumption against new laws designed to stop the Superuser.

Keywords: Computer crime, cyberlaw, internet, DRM

Suggested Citation

Ohm, Paul, The Myth of the Superuser: Fear, Risk, and Harm Online. U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-14; UC Davis Law Review Vol. 41, No. 4, Page 1327, April 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=967372

Paul Ohm (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9685 (Phone)

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