Everybody knows that the Internet is teeming with super-powerful and nefarious miscreants who are almost impossible to stop and who can cause catastrophic harms. If you need proof, simply pick up any newspaper or watch any “hacker” movie. The problem is, what everybody knows is wrong. Or, at least so I argue in my most recent article, The Myth of the Superuser: Fear, Risk, and Harm Online, which I have posted to SSRN and submitted to a law review intake inbox near you. Here’s the abstract:
Fear of the powerful computer user, “the Superuser,” dominates debates about online conflict. This mythic figure is difficult to find, immune to technological constraints, and aware of legal loopholes. Policymakers, fearful of his power, too often overreact, passing overbroad, ambiguous laws intended to ensnare the Superuser, but which are used instead against inculpable, ordinary users. This response is unwarranted because the Superuser is often a marginal figure whose power has been greatly exaggerated.
The exaggerated attention to the Superuser reveals a pathological characteristic of the study of power, crime, and security online, which springs from a widely-held fear of the Internet. Building on the social science fear literature, this Article challenges the conventional wisdom and standard assumptions about the role of experts. Unlike dispassionate experts in other fields, computer experts are as susceptible as lay-people to exaggerate the power of the Superuser, in part because they have misapplied Larry Lessig’s ideas about code.
The experts in computer security and Internet law have failed to deliver us from fear, resulting in overbroad prohibitions, harms to civil liberties, wasted law enforcement resources, and misallocated economic investment. This Article urges policymakers and partisans to stop using tropes of fear; calls for better empirical work on the probability of online harm; and proposes an anti-Precautionary Principle, a presumption against new laws designed to stop the Superuser.