Tales of Technology
Ben said, "Love your Neighbour; yet don't pull down your Hedge." This advice might have helped the creators of the Internet who seemed more influenced by Shakespeare's "All's Well that Ends Well." Their approach was minimalist: don't worry about authenticating the sender; don't worry about keeping information private; don't build in protections; just get the message to its destination.
The early architects of the Net might have believed that it was just for exchanging scientific data among computers; but today we know it is a worldwide human system. But still, each of our homes in cyberspace -- our personal computers -- emerges from its box with no "hedges." As a result the Net is like the Wild West. Outsiders can invade your computer and your life without difficulty or detection. You can't even identify who is sending you mail.
What's to be done? Revamping the Internet to build in checks seems impossible; it would be like rebuilding the highway system. The problem could be solved without rebuilding if everyone encrypted their messages -- scrambled them so that interlopers could neither read them nor forge them. Software to encrypt is freely available, but nobody uses it.
This is not because everyone is unconcerned or lazy. Many of us are fully equipped with encryption software, but 99 percent of our correspondents aren't. We never receive encrypted mail, and when we send it our correspondents can't read it. It's like being the first person in your neighborhood to speak Esperanto. Someone has to kick-start the process. The government, in its current mood, certainly won't do it because it wants to be able to read e-mail. In fact, using encryption might single you out as a suspected terrorist, drug-dealer, pornographer, music downloader or latte-drinking liberal.
Speaking of privacy, Ben famously said, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Advocates of privacy on the Internet and elsewhere frequently cite him today. Ben did far more than talk about privacy. He was appointed postmaster general of British North America and invented the postal system. Most significantly, he imbued the system with its respect for privacy which we take for granted today. He required postal employees to swear not to open mail. He fought many battles before and after the founding of the country to preserve correspondents' privacy. Ben would be appalled that there is no privacy on the Internet.
Ben helped create our intellectual property law. He said, "As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously." His generation created patent and copyright laws that divided the benefit of new things between the creators and the community.
But the Internet has provoked such panic among the holders of intellectual property that they are using legislation and technical standards to preserve all the benefit for the creators, threatening to make today's personal computers the legal equivalent of burglars' tools. Intellectual property hawk Disney repeatedly extends the copyright on Mickey Mouse and sues small day-care centers for using his image. Ben would not be pleased.
Ben created one of the first magazines in the colonies and was involved in bitter competition with another magazine owned by the postmaster of Philadelphia. The rival used his power to Ben's disadvantage until Ben got his job. From this experience, Ben learned that a common carrier should be neutral about whose content it was carrying. Since then, the post office, the telephone companies, the railroads, the broadcasters, the airlines and other regulated carriers are all required to follow rules originated by Franklin. He would instantly see the danger of cable companies such as Time-Warner allying with such information providers as AOL.
Ben has been called the patron saint of advertising because he pioneered the concept as a publisher in Philadelphia, advertising ideas as well as products. Through letters to the editor, often appearing with pseudonyms, he urged the population of Philadelphia that they needed firefighters, a militia, a public hospital and street cleaners. The key idea was not advocating actions in publications but labeling and separating advocacy from the publication's more objective content.
When Internet advertising began in the 1990s, a bright fellow began counting how often readers clicked on ads to get more information. Guess what? Nobody clicked! The number of people clicking was so small compared with the number seeing the ad that other bright fellows concluded that the ads were nearly worthless. This raised the possibility that ads everywhere have become ineffective, threatening entire industries -- advertising, magazines, television, etc.
Then some dumb people "improved" the ads by making them flash and do other distracting things. Dumber people make the ads pop up in different windows that obscure the window one actually wanted to see. Finally, people so dumb they border on evil invented spam, a ridiculous blizzard of unwanted advertising transmitted via e-mail.
Ben is rolling over in his Philadelphia grave to see how wasteful and inefficient advertising has become.
Mercifully and miraculously, a few smart people said, "Let's charge advertisers for only the clicks and try to show readers ads they might be interested in." This is the Google business model. Ben would approve.
As for pornography, Internet or otherwise, Ben would be tolerant. He wrote what might be called porn in Puritan times, for example a tale of sex and woe told from a woman's point of view, and an essay on choosing older women as mistresses. He also would probably welcome that other bane of the Internet: Viagra ads. In 1780s Paris he was a septuagenarian celebrity pursued by beautiful women. But, according to Isaacson, Ben never consummated any relationships.
© James H. Morris, 2004