new paper: Technopanics, Threat Inflation & an Info-Tech Precautionary Principle

by on February 28, 2012 · 3 comments

[UPDATE: 2/14/2013: As noted here, this paper was published by the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology in their Winter 2013 edition. Please refer to that post for more details and cite this final version of the paper going forward.]

I’m pleased to report that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released my huge new white paper, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.” I’ve been working on this paper for a long time and look forward to finding it a home in a law journal some time soon.  Here’s the summary of this 80-page paper:

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.

The complete paper can be found on the Mercatus site here, on SSRN, or on Scribd.  I’ve also embedded it below in a Scribd reader.

Technopanics and Threat Inflation [Adam Thierer – Mercatus Center]

  • Anne Collier

    Adam, thanks for this important contribution to the technopanics literature! I wonder if, in your research, you’ve identified an antidote to fear-based consumer education, such as the “social norms approach” tested in a 3-year study in N.J. schools a few yrs ago by
    researchers at Hobart-William Smith
    ( Has that been presented as a feasible alternative, and have you run across other viable approaches? I ask because, among youth activists I’ve worked with recently, there are some who resort to using scary “data” on bullying, predators, etc., probably because of what has been modeled for them by their elders. Instead of saying “don’t do that,” seems only fair to offer alternatives.

  • Adam Thierer

    Yes, absolutely Anne. The next step involves getting far more serious about resiliency-based alternatives rooted in smart social norms, media literacy, and digital citizenship ethics efforts. In other words, it would be rooted in all the great work you, Larry, and our other friends have been doing!  You are the real experts here, not me, and I just keep pointing people back to what you all have down to show them the more constructive path forward. 

    Although fear-based tactics will always be with us to some extent, I am confident that our approach can gain more traction because of one simple reason: The fear-based tactics and resulting regulatory proposals almost always fail to achieve the desired results. Our approach, by contrast, offers lessons that last a lifetime and prepare kids and adults alike for the many evolving challenges they will face in our fast-moving information ecosystem.

    Cheers — AT

  • Anne

    Thanks, Adam. Sometimes I feel our kids are responding to the evolving challenges you refer to (and maybe even themselves evolving) much better and faster than we are! 

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