I’m excited to announce that the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology has just published the final version of my 78-page paper on, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.” My thanks to the excellent team at the Journal, who made the final product a much better paper than the one I turned into them! I poured my heart and soul into this article and hope others find it useful. It’s the culmination of all my work on technopanics and threat inflation in information policy debates, much of which I originally developed here in various essays through the years. In coming weeks, I hope to elaborate on themes I develop in the paper in a couple of posts here.
Fear is an extremely powerful motivational force. In public policy debates, appeals to fear are often used in an attempt to sway opinion or bolster the case for action. Such appeals are used to convince citizens that threats to individual or social well-being may be avoided only if specific steps are taken. Often these steps take the form of anticipatory regulation based on the precautionary principle. Such “fear appeal arguments” are frequently on display in the Internet policy arena and often take the form of a fullblown “moral panic” or “technopanic.” These panics are intense public, political, and academic responses to the emergence oruse of media or technologies, especially by the young. In the extreme, they result in regulation or censorship. While cyberspace has its fair share of troubles and troublemakers, there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society than previous technologies did. That has not stopped some from suggesting there are reasons to be particularly fearful of the Internet and new digital technologies. There are various individual and institutional factors at work that perpetuate fear-based reasoning and tactics.
This paper will consider the structure of fear appeal arguments in technology policy debates, and then outline how those arguments can be deconstructed and refuted in both cultural and economic contexts. Several examples of fear appeal arguments will be offered with a particular focus on online child safety, digital privacy, and cybersecurity. The various factors contributing to “fear cycles” in these policy areas will be 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.