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One possible intellectual tool, popular with environmentalists and policy makers, is the Precautionary Principle, which states that when something is suspected of being harmful, the burden of proof that the thing is not harmful rests with its proponents. This principle has a stronger and a weaker formulation. The stronger calls for regulation of any potentially harmful activity, or refraining from action altogether, until there is consensus that it is safe. The weaker does not demand regulation or bans; it weighs costs against likelihoods. The former says, “Better safe than sorry”; the latter, “Be prepared.”

Although a handful of international agreements have endorsed the strong formulation, and while it possesses a quasi-legal status in European Union law, it is in fact seldom applied. (A notable exception is in the management of global fisheries.) Certainly, governments, corporations, and individuals routinely ignore it when thinking about new technologies. That’s because the idea is “paralyzing,” according to Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (and for many years a professor of law at the University of Chicago, where he wrote about behavioral economics and risk). No one knows how new technologies will be used in the future. There is never any consensus about risks. Crises accompany the development of any new, complex system, but their exact form tends to take us by surprise.

But if the strong formulation of the Precautionary Principle is paralyzing, the weak formulation is almost no help at all. It provides little guidance for thinking about unlikely but potentially catastrophic risks. We need an entirely new principle that will guide our investment in precautionary technology. When a technology fails or is unsustainable, we should be rationally confident that a fix or alternative exists or will exist, because ingenious humans have devised other technologies that will mitigate the crisis or stand in the outmoded technology’s place. Government has a justified role in requiring such precautionary investment in new technologies.

In the absence of a new principle, we have mere optimism.

David Talbot’s feature, which accepts that we’re not likely to build an entirely new, more secure Internet, describes research into new technologies that may make our networks safer. For now, perhaps that’s the best risk management we can expect. Read about them, and write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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Credit: Mark Ostow

Tagged: Computing

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