You’re not alone, Adam Thierer of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, would have you know. In a working paper he posted on the Web yesterday titled “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” Thierer outlines the dread that many have for the Web. The fears are real, of course. People do get robbed on the Web. Individuals have lost their privacy on the Web. Companies and governments have been hacked by thieves and foreign agents.
But surveying the hacks and rip-offs, Thierer finds that for reasons both psychological and political, the severity of most intrusions has been exaggerated. Attributing the overreactions to “moral panics” linked to new technology (“technopanics”), he writes convincingly that “there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society than previous technologies did.” That’s not to say that you’ve got no right to be flipped out about apps pinching your address book or your photos without your express permission, or about Facebook accessing your phone’s text messages without explicitly saying so, or about Google using a browser flaw to bypass your privacy settings, or about Google and 104 other companies tracking you as you pad around the Web.
You have every right to be flipped out, Thierer counsels. Yet the best way to deal with these nightmares is not with Federal Trade Commission rules or new legislation but “societal learning, experimentation, resiliency, and coping strategies,” he writes.
The beating heart of Thierer’s paper is the belief — which I endorse — that societies tend to twist themselves into moral panics when confronted with something new or unrecognized that they don’t understand. “A moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole,” is how one academic quoted by Thierer defines it. The current panics over the Web are just the latest manifestation. Thierer continues: