“If we can put a man on the moon…”

by on January 9, 2012 · 0 comments

I enjoyed this new piece by Matt Welch over at Reason about the uses and abuses of the “if we can put a man on the moon” metaphor. “There’s no escaping the moonshot in contemporary political discourse,” Welch notes. Indeed, in the field of technology policy, we hear the old “if we can put a man on the moon, then we can [fill in the blank]… ” line with increasing regularity.

For example, just a few years ago, in the midst of the social networking “predator panic,” several state Attorneys General, led by Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, pushed aggressively for a mandatory online age verification scheme.  At several points during the debate, Blumenthal, now a U.S. Senator, argued that “The technology is available. The solution is financially feasible, practically doable. If we can put a man on the moon, we can check ages of people on these Web sites,” he claimed. Of course, just saying so doesn’t make it true. As I noted in a big paper on the issue, online age verification is extremely complicated, likely even impossible, and history has shown that no technological control is foolproof. Moreover, attempts to impose authentication and identification schemes would have numerous trade-offs and unintended consequences, especially for online anonymity, privacy, and free speech. A subsequent report by the Harvard-based blue ribbon Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) showed why that was the case.

We also increasingly hear “man on the moon” quips in the burgeoning field of cybersecurity, as we did last October when President Obama announced National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. We can expect plenty more of those in years to come.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t be basing public policy on grand “if we can put a man on the moon…” pronouncements or predictions. Every government action has costs and consequences that must be taken into account, no matter how noble the goal. And, unlike the actual case of sending a man to the moon, where almost everyone thought it was a good idea, many of us do not believe the sort of “man on the moon” proposals bandied about in the cyberlaw arena these days are even worth pursuing.

[Of course, we all know the moon landings were faked, so I'm not sure why we're even debating this!]

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