Don’t fear the Web

February 29, 2012

Does the Internet make you anxious? Do you lie awake nights worrying that Russian hackers are turning your children into sex slaves? Have you had the feeling that your iPhone is spying on you?

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:

This pattern has played out for dime novels, comic books, movies, rock-and-roll music, video games, and other types of media or media platforms. While protection of youth is typically a motivating factor, some moral panics and technopanics transcend traditional ‘it’s-for-the-children’ rationales for information control. The perceived threat may be to other segments of society or involve other values that are supposedly under threat, such as privacy or security.

The standard reaction to moral panics — and technopanics — by pundits, legislators, activists, and others is for society to “do something” to eliminate or regulate the new menace. The calls to “do something” invariably inflate the dangers posed by a new social wrinkle or technological innovation. The recording industry got blackmailed in 1985 into sticking warning labels on their product. Hollywood dodged the threat of government censorship with its movie-rating system in 1968. The V-chip, which nobody uses, got installed on all new TVs to protect the kiddies from smut and violence. The broadcast TV networks get bullied into creating “family-friendly” programming in the early evening in the mid-1970s.

The Thierer paper is especially good on how “threat inflation” is used to blow genuine problems like hacking out of proportion, as allusions are made to “Digital Pearl Harbors,” “cyber Katrinas,” and “cyber 9/11s” lurking just around the corner. The best recent example of threat inflation is the overreaction to the failure of a water pump in the Midwest that the Washington Post described thusly in a headline: “Foreign hackers targeted U.S. water plant in apparent malicious cyber attack, expert says.” As it turns out, the “expert” was wrong. As it turned out, the pump wasn’t manipulated by a Russian cyber-attacker. It failed by itself and only looked like a Russian attack because a water plant contractor was logging onto the plant’s system to check it while traveling in Russia.

Thierer’s paper documents and shoots down other such Web-era technopanics: The fears that MySpace and Facebook were becoming “predator’s playgrounds”; that 85.5 percent of online images were pornographic; that RFID technologies were designed to track and control the masses; that Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of DirecTV would give him dictatorial programming power over cable companies (instead, Murdoch quickly sold DirecTV after pursuing it for years).

We fear the new for sound psychological reasons: Until you understand it adequately, something new could be a genuine danger. Inflating the threat posed by something new based on anecdotal evidence isn’t completely irrational: There’s probably no way the Web can hurt you or your children if you ban it from your life.

But banishment is not how we generally handle risk. We accept the small chance that we’ll be injured or killed in a car accident, or a plane flight, or crossing an intersection on foot without becoming hysterical about cars, planes, or walking. When we’re at our best — when the press and TV aren’t scaremongering us with hysterical coverage, when self-serving advocacy groups and threatened businesses aren’t hyping the problems into menaces — we’re able to make incremental adjustments to whatever new potential perils are posed by media. Children approach new media with optimism, their elders with pessimism, forgetting that they, too, were optimistic about new media when they were young.

I shortchange Thierer’s insights with this summary. He’s no Pangloss about new media and new technology, and is probably as worried as the next guy about some hacker draining his bank account. Yet he’s right when he says that more damage can be done by prematurely straitjacketing new media with complex new laws and regulations. If smartphone owners want to share their address books and photos with app makers in exchange for a free service, there’s no reason laws and regulations can’t allow them to make that deal without a lot of bother.

Because Thierer’s paper is so good, I’ll let him have the last, unpanicked word. “Transparency and disclosure are … the superior options for most online safety and privacy concerns,” he writes. “To the extent regulatory policies are deemed necessary, they should sunset on a regular basis unless policymakers can justify their continued existence.”


Send your Social Security number, date and place of birth, mother’s maiden name, and the name of your first pet to All other suckers can tweet the information via their Twitter accounts and include my Twitter handle in their message. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: A journalist checks the U.S. Senate’s website after it was attacked by Internet hackers in Washington, June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Stelios Varias


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

my scond home is the high street computer shop; due to ongoing viruses etc… it is very entertaining to hang in the shop and hear customers protesting all day long , and swapping hacking/viruses stories;

Posted by Paats-W. | Report as abusive

Until I read this article, it had never really occurred to me that a significant number of people had “technopanics.”

The last time I encountered a virus or bit of malware on my own hardware was on a Mac in 1993. I currently use OS X, Linux, and Chrome OS. While bad things do happen to knowledgeable people (see James Fallows’ posts on his wife’s compromised Gmail account last year), to a large degree, the net is as safe as you make it. I have installed various browser plugins to suppress ads and tracking, and I try not to do stupid things like transacting business over an open, public Wi-Fi connection. However, there are millions of people who either lack the ability or the interest to secure their computers, and they make companies like the Geek Squad profitable.

Realistically, I’m more concerned about picking up a biological virus from a stranger in a crowd than I am about picking up a computer virus.

Posted by S_Deemer | Report as abusive