Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle

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.

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 deconstructs cultural and economic myths that come from fear arguments in the technology policy debate with a particular focus on online child safety, digital privacy, and cyber security. 

Where do cyber fears come from? Logical fallacies instigate many calls for regulations in the technology policy arena, and these give rise to the technopanics and fear cycles, where different institutions reinforce fear appeals amongst each other. Among all this panic, the public, media pundits, intellectuals and policymakers articulate their desire to “do something” to rid society of the apparent menace. What truly defines the panic is the effort to demonize it and control a particular type of content or technology. 

The rhetorical device most crucial to all technopanics is threat inflation. Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins have warned of the dangers of threat inflation in cyber security policy and the corresponding rise of the “cyber security industrial complex.” Such arguments illustrate the importance of fear appeal: “Cyber attacks will become more sophisticated and catastrophic—If we don’t act we will be open to attack—therefore, policymakers must regulate technology to ensure our safety.” 

Examples from history (particularly with child safety and information privacy) point to hysteria that proved to have numerous methodological flaws, some resulting in ineffective regulations. To make matters worse, pessimistic critics who use threat inflation to advance their causes are rarely held accountable when their predictions fail to come to pass.

Why are technopanics and threat inflation dangerous? 

Unfortunately, some panics do not blow over quickly and the myths surrounding them persist. The dangers can produce four main side effects: 

  1. They could lead to dangerous tensions throughout society and foster animosity among the citizenry. This result could prevent people from using certain technologies that would otherwise benefit society.
  2. They could create distrust of institutions with “boy-who-cried-wolf” scenarios in the media. Distrust is dangerous for deliberative democracy because “when a threat is inflated, the marketplace of ideas on which a democracy relies to make sound judgment…can become overwhelmed by fallacious information.” 
  3. These panics based on false or exaggerated information can cloud the public from actual, far more serious risks.
  4. They encourage policymakers to adopt far-reaching controls on information flows and the information economy.

Information controls could stifle free speech, limit the free flow of ideas, and retard social and economic innovation. It is vital that public policy debates about information technology not be driven by technopanics and threat inflation. Instead, a four-part framework should be used to analyze the risks associated with new technological developments and determine the proper course of action. Technology fears that lead to harmful public policy can be countered by hard evidence and reasoning before they do serious damage to a free society. 

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