Adam Thierer of George Mason University released a paper last week entitled “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle“, which could have been titled “The web: new things seem scary, so people freak the hell out“.

He discusses how though the internet does have real dangers and pitfalls (companies storing your passwords in plaintext for crackers to steal, ISPs selling out your browsing history, etc.), the solution to these types of problems is not clamping down on the technology, but rather “societal learning, experimentation, resiliency, and coping strategies“.

Source: xkcd

Thierer’s main thesis is that when confronted with new technologies, society’s first reaction is to blow these dangers completely out of proportion and uses those falsely magnified threats to try to control and lock down the technology.

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 bulliedinto creating “family-friendly” programming in the early evening in the mid-1970s.

The paper’s definitely worth a read, even if you just spend all your time nodding your head sadly and rolling your eyes in agreement, it’s a good reference to be able to wave in the face of someone who thinks that teaching kids how to use the internet should be 95% about teaching them how to fear it.