Cybersecurity is one of the issues that the President may touch upon tonight in his State of the Union speech, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he is ready to move on comprehensive cybersecurity legislation soon. This all raises the question: what is the problem we’re trying to fix?
In an important new working paper for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Eli Dourado asks if there is a market failure in cybersecurity that requires a government response. He concludes that policymakers may be jumping to conclusions a little too hastily.
Proponents of cybersecurity regulation make the case that private network owners do not completely internalize cyber risks. The reason, they say, is that a loss stemming from a cyber attack, against a financial network for example, will affect not just the network owner, but thousands of consumers as well. As a result, private network owners won’t spend the socially optimal amount on to meet that risk. That is a market failure, they say, and only government intervention can ensure that we get the right amount of cybersecurity.
In his paper, however,Dourado shows that the presence of an externality does not necessarily mean that there is a market failure. Externalities are often internalized by private parties without government intervention. This is true both generally and in the realm of cybersecurity. Policy makers, he says, should therefore be careful not to enact cybersecurity legislation just because they observe an externality. Regulating when there is no market failure will likely have dire unintended consequences.