John Armor: Poor Richard’s Internet

ACRU legal counsel John Armor wrote this column appearing on on June 26, 2010.

Let’s raise two questions: What would Ben Franklin think of the Internet? And, what would be his opinion of efforts by the current Administration to censor Internet content, or even shut it down in “an emergency?”

Events in Franklin’s life may answer those questions. A recent two-hour TV special on him made one point that deserves repeating: Of all the Framers who created the United States of America in law and in fact, the one who would be “most at home in the modern world” was Dr. Franklin.

First, Franklin was a scientist. He observed facts in the real world. He developed theories to explain those facts. Then, he developed experiments to prove whether his theories were correct. Today, this process is called “the scientific method.” Franklin would be quite at home with all modern scientists who still deal in facts and proofs, in addition to theories.

Second, Franklin was a student of communication over time and space. As Assistant Royal Postmaster, Franklin created a postal service that would get mail from New York to Boston in two days, and it turned a profit. Most importantly, his post office connected the rebels in the Committees of Correspondence in all colonies with each other, to the great benefit of the American Revolution.

Franklin also communicated effectively as the publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette and of the very successful Poor Richard’s Almanack. His post office turned both into national publications.

Lastly, he’s famous for changing electricity from a parlor trick into a subject for effective scientific inquiry.

The Internet combines all three of these Franklin interests. He would be entranced by it. He would seek out those who could explain computers and the Internet. Days later, after experimenting with both, he would be back with suggestions to make the Internet faster, better, cheaper and more effective.

Franklin would recognize that the Internet is the 21st century culmination of all his efforts as a patriot, publisher and postmaster in the 18th century. Would Franklin oppose political content censorship of the Internet? He spoke and wrote against censorship. But an event from his childhood gives a solid answer. When Franklin was 13, he was still an apprentice to his older brother James. The Massachusetts government took offense to an editorial James published, in his newspaper, The New England Courant. James was jailed for one month. After his release, he was ordered not to publish his newspaper by name and with him as Editor. Therefore, James engineered a subterfuge. The Courant was now to be published by Ben Franklin, not James, even though Ben was the young apprentice.

As a printer, Franklin was well aware of three attempts by King George to control the colonial American press. The first was to forbid any presses in America unless allowed by Royal decree. This failed due to the skills of smugglers. The second was to require licensing of all existing presses. This failed due to the abilities of printers to disassemble, move and hide their presses. The last was the Stamp Act, requiring all newspapers and legal documents to be printed on paper bearing the Royal stamp, available only from the Royal Governors. There were riots; warehouses of paper were burned; and Parliament repealed this Act on the eve of the Revolution.

Lastly, on his deathbed, Franklin knew that the Constitution he worked on in Philadelphia had been ratified, and that the price of ratification was the addition of the Bill of Rights, drafted by Congressman James Madison at the demand of the states. Franklin knew that the First Amendment contained a guarantee of freedom of the press.

The whole career of Benjamin Franklin, from very young to very old, stands for the proposition that the press should be free to criticize the government — that when criticisms sting the most, they are the most essential. It follows that he would oppose any bill giving any President the power to shut down any part of the press in a self-declared “emergency.”

If old Ben were with us today, Poor Richard’s Almanack would be Poor Richard’s Internet. Ben would be happily publishing from his desk top to the world his opposition to all tyranny by all governments, especially tyranny over his beloved press.