How The US Post Office Killed Innovative Digital Mail Because It Disrupted Junk Mailers

from the killing-innovation dept

Derek Khanna has yet another story of how politicians and incumbents have killed off an innovative service. Though, amazingly, unlike in other cases where the killing is hidden behind totally bogus claims of “public safety” or “consumer choice,” this time the politicians appeared to be very direct in admitting that they wanted the service dead because it upset incumbents. It’s the story of Outbox, a service that would take all of your snail mail and digitize it (and, in the process, dump and unsubscribe you from all that junk mail). It was created by two former Congressional staffers who had seen how nice a mail digitization system could be in Congress. People who used Outbox loved it. All your mail digitized in an easy to review manner — while also removing all the junk mail you hated? It was a great service.

But, the Postmaster General basically did everything possible to kill it. You really should read the full story, but it involves the Postmaster General calling Outbox’s founders into his office. They thought that it might be about an opportunity to work together to provide the American public a much better service. But it wasn’t:

When Evan and Will got called in to meet with the Postmaster General they were joined by the USPS’s General Counsel and Chief of Digital Strategy. But instead, Evan recounts that US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe “looked at us and said ‘we have a misunderstanding. ‘You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.'” Further, “You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers—about 400 junk mailers are our customers. Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”

According to Evan, the Chief of Digital Strategy’s comments were even more stark, “[Your market model] will never work anyway. Digital is a fad. It will only work in Europe.”

While the USPS would not directly confirm this exchange (it also did not deny it), it did send Khanna a statement that pretty much confirms it, even if it tried to spin the way they explained it:

The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail—even if authorized by the receiver—and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.

Khanna asked if any users had actually complained about signing up for Outbox and somehow having the “security of their mail” harmed. The USPS did not answer. Khanna also asked why the USPS wouldn’t even give Outbox the option of continuing its service if they didn’t “destroy” the physical mail. The USPS did not answer.

This story is shameful, but not unique. We see it all the time, though it’s rare that politicians are so direct in admitting their real motives (though, as we’ve seen, some others have done so recently as well). But this is the constant struggle of disruption and innovation. Incumbents with business models that don’t serve the public, don’t look to make a better product. Rather they look for political ways to restrict competition and block innovation. The USPS destroying Outbox is just one in a long line of depressing examples.

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Comments on “How The US Post Office Killed Innovative Digital Mail Because It Disrupted Junk Mailers”

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72 Comments
RD says:

Open Admission

“You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers?about 400 junk mailers are our customers. Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”

And that right there tells you everything you need to know about the state of governance in this country. This attitude persists ALL the way through the system, from the President right on down to the local police (more accurately termed domestic military) and the corporations that control them. At every level of government, the public is seen as the ENEMY, the obligation is seen to the paymasters, and not those they are supposed to be serving. This will escalate until there is a flash-point, most likely when the general populace gets so sick and tired of hearing about the malfeasance of those in power that they decide “if they won’t follow the law, why should we??” at which point things will spiral out of control very rapidly.

Lawrence D?Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: and the efforts by government to disarm the population

You mean, the same US government that is blocking research into the harm caused by guns?

Your beloved ?right to bear arms? is a wonderfully useful red herring to your Government. Every time they want to take away your rights, they just make a feint at the Second Amendment. This succeeds in clouding your minds so much that they can then easily put restrictions on free speech, freedom against search and seizure, or whatever else they want, and you don?t even notice.

Your guns are supposed to protect you from tyranny. But the tyranny is all around you, and your guns are worthless.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re: and the efforts by government to disarm the population

As Lawrence D?Oliveiro says, if the population were disarmed tomorrow, nobody would notice as the gun-lovers aren’t doing anything about the tyranny we have now. It’s just dick-holding, like toddlers do, to make themselves feel better.

Word of warning, if you ever did decide to “nut up and do something” with those guns of yours, you’d be labeled a terrorist and people not unlike yourself would clutch their guns a little tighter to their chests and congratulate themselves on how they’d have been among the first to take aim at you had you shown up in their neighborhood, content that you were going to face a long, long time in jail. It’s not worth even thinking about armed revolution.

If you don’t like the system we have now, vote the bums out in 2016.

Trip W (profile) says:

Protecting who from what

I don’t quite buy that this is just protectionism for some incumbent junk mailer businesses. Perhaps the Postmaster General is actually just trying to protect the Postal Service in general. If the 400 Junk Mailers are the bulk of mail sent through the USPS, then knowingly bringing in a technology that disrupts and destroys that business possibly destroys the USPS itself. The USPS has been said to be struggling because of the move to digital over the past 20 years, so taking away the junk mailers brings us down to what… the birthday and holiday cards peoples’ grandmas send because they are too old to just write ‘Happy Birthday!!! :)’ on Facebook? To keep that giant operation going will create rate hikes and then it will cost granny $45 to send that card.

Also, if people start realizing their letters are being scanned and sent to people digitally, why pay for postage at all and just start sending those people the letters in digital form (and cut out the postmen/middlemen) like many companies are already trying to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Protecting who from what

Also, if people start realizing their letters are being scanned and sent to people digitally, why pay for postage at all and just start sending those people the letters in digital form (and cut out the postmen/middlemen) like many companies are already trying to do.

Yes please.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Protecting who from what

The mail I used to send and receive (mostly bill payments) has been offset by the mail sent to me in packages from online stores.

Without the junk mailers, most people wouldn’t get mail every single day. I would probably go all week without a single letter. They could optimize their service to deliver to an address only when they receive something.

JEDIDIAH says:

Re: Protecting who from what

It’s a pretty mundane fact that the USPS largely remains in existence as a front citizen hostile bulk mail. Not only is it obviously abusive to the environment and wasteful, it also is prone to cause you problems with your creditors as REAL MAIL may get sent back in favor of this trash that you CAN’T opt out of.

People need to stop pretending that the USPS is some kind of quasi-private entity. The constitutional literalists need to re-read their copy of the constitution and realize that the Postal Service is one of the few things the government is actually empowered to do. Then at that point it might return to being the communications medium of last resort it’s supposed to be. We can give up this delusion of it needing to be self sufficient or privatized. We can give up using a constitutionally authorized federal agency to propagate abusive trash.

The USPS is rightfully part of the government. It doesn’t need to be efficient or justify it’s existence in some perverted Ayn Rand notion of what a corporation should be.

The USPS should be run from my taxes, not the cost of a stamp.

Carl Reese says:

I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

I know it won’t make me popular here, perhaps, but hear (read) me out. It isn’t for the reasons in the article.

If you look at it as purely an issue of digitizing things on paper for archival, then yes, this is great. It is awesome when your secretary, that has worked for you and answers to you, scans your email and puts it somewhere nice.

But is it awesome when the USPS, which is beholden only to the government (read: NSA), has your explicit permission to OPEN AND SCAN every piece of mail you get? Really? You guys really think this is a good idea?

First off, I don’t want the USPS opening my birthday cards. I also don’t want them opening my sensitive documents that I send to my doctor, to my employer, to anyone. Secondly, this puts the onus for maintaining storage and technology on the government. And they have a spectacular track record there, right?

Honestly guys, I love this blog. But when you excoriate the government for reading your email, and then excoriate the government for NOT reading your snail mail, you are sending mixed messages. And no, I do not believe “safeguards” would prevent anyone from reading or copying my mail.

I’m not naive enough to think they don’t already open mail, but let’s keep it analog and make the NSA’s job harder, not easier.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

I’m utterly baffled by the displayed lack of understanding here.

Set aside personal pronouns like “mine”, “you”, “I”.

It is not good, in today’s society, for ANYONE, to put into the hands of an increasingly authoritarian government our information. I am sincerely astonished that all of you who scream and cry impotently about your “privacy” and how it is being violated are having a problem understanding this.

Rather_Notsay (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

I’m astonished that anyone would be confused by such an obviously inappropriate analogy.

Let’s break it down.

Outbox or similar services are hired by the recipient. They opening only physical mail and only for the purpose of putting put it on a scanner and sending it to the client. The service has no authorization or intent to understand the communication. Does not store the communication. That takes time, and nobody is paying them to do that. If the client doesn’t like what’s being done with his information he can terminate the contract.

NSA or other TLA. Hired by the government spies to vacuum up all forms of communication and put it to whatever purpose they see fit. Is specifically charged with understanding the communication, as well as attempting to integrate it with other received communication. Stores the communication in case they want to look at it later. If the intended recipient doesn’t like it, they can lump it.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re: I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

Yes, because private companies don’t collude with the government ever.

That’s even WORSE. Because then, not only would said private company turn around and hand it over to the feds (Numerous leaks concerning the FISC, the DOJ, the FBI, the NSA, and local law enforcement have proven time and again that this is the case), but they can ALSO then sell your data to other companies!

This would have been a horrific idea. Give me my snail mail.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

You do realize that this wouldn’t be an automatic thing at all, right? You’d have to sign up for, and pay for, the service. If you don’t like the privacy implications of that (and I agree with you, I’d never ever use a service like this), then simply don’t sign up for it.

I don’t see the problem.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

Ha, I started with snark, deleted, and started again. 🙂

I’m not convinced. I understand what you are saying, but one really only has to look at Facebook to understand. Do I have to have a Facebook account? No, of course not. In fact, I don’t. I loathe social media.

But I also don’t get the discounts Facebook users get. I don’t have access to some sites (unrelated to Facebook!) because you have to use a Facebook login.

So imagine this service is offered, and the government says… “Hmmm, if we can get a ton of people to adopt this, we can save a ton of money on USPS staffing. Let’s offer it for FREE!” You would end up with an influx of customers. You just would. And then enough people are on the service that it becomes a ‘standard’.

And then slowly… ever so slowly, snail mail is marginalized more and more as that ‘old-fashioned’ service. Then the USPS gets abolished (and why not? they are hemmorrhaging money anyway)and we are left with the ‘standard’, and the couriers like FedEx and UPS. Ah, but they are expensive… and you basically have a national email account anyway…

How long would it take? Five years? Ten? Maybe even 15, because the USPS is part of our culture. It doesn’t matter. Private company or not, ‘optional’ or not, at some point we- as a sociaety and as the individuals responsible for it- have to look at tech with a little more of a jaded eye, a little more suspicion. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “They spent so much time figuring out if they could, no one ever bothered to stop and wonder if they should.”

It is no inconvenience to me, at all, to put a letter in the mail. It’s a red flag on my mailbox, or a drop in a big blue box on the streetcorner. Not everything needs to end up as ones and zeroes. Not everything needs to be turned into a marketable, indexable, searchable database. It really just doesn’t.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

“But I also don’t get the discounts Facebook users get. I don’t have access to some sites (unrelated to Facebook!) because you have to use a Facebook login.”

Me too. But that’s all very irrelevant. You still don’t have to use facebook.

You’re making a fairly shaky slippery slope argument, in my opinion. Snail mail is already well on its way out. I don’t get personal snail mail anymore, and I only check my mailbox because it’s necessary to toss all the trash that it accumulates every so often.

The day is coming that snail mail as we know it will be gone regardless of things like “digital mail”, so it’s not an effective argument against “digital mail” even if the argument is logically valid — and I don’t think it is.

“Not everything needs to end up as ones and zeroes. Not everything needs to be turned into a marketable, indexable, searchable database.”

You’re combining two distinct things here as if they are synonymous, and they aren’t. You can totally digitize everything without any of it being turned into a marketable database.

But regardless of that, I agree with you. Not everything needs to. However, if some people find a service like this useful, what’s the basis of saying they can’t use it? It doesn’t harm you or I, who wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re: Re:4 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

“You’re making a fairly shaky slippery slope argument, in my opinion. Snail mail is already well on its way out. I don’t get personal snail mail anymore, and I only check my mailbox because it’s necessary to toss all the trash that it accumulates every so often.”

Very good! A decent debatable argument. And you are absolutely right. I do not get snail mail very often either.

But I could if I wanted to. And on the few occasionas I do, I don’t need to worry about who is looking at that letter.

Think of it this way: Today, right now, I have one or two surefire ways I can communicate with someone else without the immediate fear that the information is being looked at (not because they can’t, I’m not naive), but because it’s HARD TO. Why would I give that up? Why would you?

As to snail mail being well on its way out… maybe? Maybe not? People said that about vinyl, and yet record sales are inexplicably climbing. Perhaps people need to stop worrying about encrypting their email and just start sending letters. Where do you think the USPS will go then?

“You’re combining two distinct things here as if they are synonymous, and they aren’t. You can totally digitize everything without any of it being turned into a marketable database.”

Yes, you can. But, would you? Come on. Set aside the academic theories and be honest. 50-100 million names, addresses… and personal details. The thank you notes you send out after a wedding? Prepare for vendors to start emailing you ‘special’ offers. Oh, you think this will cut spam? Except for ‘companies’ that pay for access to the database… held in private hands of course.

You also snipped off the ‘searchable, indexable’ part of my sentence. In context, you see I am more worried about such data in the wrong hands, not receiving (or not receiving) my monthly coupon mailer.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

“And on the few occasionas I do, I don’t need to worry about who is looking at that letter.”

And nothing about any of this would change that.

“Yes, you can. But, would you? Come on. Set aside the academic theories and be honest. 50-100 million names, addresses… and personal details.”

I think that we’re talking about different things here, as the rest of this paragraph doesn’t seem at all relevant to my point. My point was conceptual, not pertaining to this mail scan thing in particular.

“You also snipped off the ‘searchable, indexable’ part of my sentence. In context, you see I am more worried about such data in the wrong hands”

I did so for brevity. Including that part does not change my statement at all.

I don’t disagree with any of your points about privacy, etc. But it still seems to me that you’re arguing against using a service like mail scanning — and I agree with you about that as well!

You’re not, however, making a compelling argument for why providing such a service to people who want it should be illegal.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re: Re:6 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

To your first point:

Nothing would change yet.

To your second:

Conceptual or not, you must carry it through to its logical conclusion. Not accepting responsibility for the outcome of a concept is why we are where we are. Incidentally, it is also why I quote from Jurassic Park.

To your third:

I never said it should be illegal. I said it was a terrible idea.

But more to the point, as you’ve agreed with me concerning privacy, I can only assume it is in the minutiae that we disagree. I’m not certain I could change your mind. My personal stance is that not every new idea is a good one, and in today’s climate this one is worse than some others. If privacy alone is not enough of an argument, then I’m not sure what would be.

On the other hand, no one has offered a compelling argument for why this IS a good idea, other than, “because digital!”

I witnessed the birth of Big Digital. So what. When technology outpaces our capacity to intelligently, rationally, and humanely deal with it, we have a problem. Digitizing the post office just because you can, leaving the consequences out as a separate ‘concept’… It’s difficult for me to accept your argument as any more valid than mine.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

“Nothing would change yet.”

Yes, I understand. I should have been more clear — I consider your scenario of the future around this to be very, very unlikely.

“you must carry it through to its logical conclusion. Not accepting responsibility for the outcome of a concept is why we are where we are.”

I don’t think your conclusion is the logical one. We simply disagree on this point. I’m not sure what you mean in the rest of this sentence — what responsibility for what outcome have we failed to accept, and where has it led us?

“I can only assume it is in the minutiae that we disagree.”

I believe our real disagreement is on the dingle point I mentioned — that I don’t think there is a good basis to declare that this service should not exist. There is plenty of basis to declare that nobody should use it, though.

Although perhaps we aren’t really disagreeing at all, since you’ve conceded that you aren’t against the existence of the service. Since the article is about the USPS preventing the service from existing, and your arguments seemed to go pretty far beyond “nobody should use it”, I assumed you were arguing that the USPS was acting correctly. I misunderstood you, I’m sorry.

“When technology outpaces our capacity to intelligently, rationally, and humanely deal with it, we have a problem.”

It’s statements like this that sound to my ear like you’re arguing for illegality. In any case, this is an age-old argument — people have been making it well before digital computers even existed.

The problem with it isn’t that it is completely without merit. The real problem with it is that new technologies always outpace our capacity to deal with them. We know how to deal with yesterday, not tomorrow. We can’t know how to deal with things that don’t exist yet, because it is — and always has been — almost impossible to predict what problems the new things will actually cause. But once we have the new things, we do figure it out sooner or later (and usually more on the sooner side than the later side).

To say that we should avoid new things because we don’t yet know how to deal with them is effectively to say that we should never develop new things. That can’t be the right answer. For all the problems technology has brought to our feet, the problems they have solved are even greater.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

Yes, you can. But, would you? Come on. Set aside the academic theories and be honest. 50-100 million names, addresses… and personal details. The thank you notes you send out after a wedding? Prepare for vendors to start emailing you ‘special’ offers. Oh, you think this will cut spam? Except for ‘companies’ that pay for access to the database… held in private hands of course.

If a company that exists to eliminate junk mail starts to create more junk mail (by selling the data), another service will pop up that will respect user privacy and create competition. More likely, several companies will start up, if there seems to be money in it. It’s how capitalism works. I’m not seeing the need to shut down a service that is totally voluntary and susceptible to the effects of the market.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

You’re making a fairly shaky slippery slope argument, in my opinion. Snail mail is already well on its way out.

At least here in the UK it is still valuable for deliver of small parcels, some of which come from foreign countries. Where would many of the retailers on Amazon be without it, especially those in China and Hong Kong.

Jim says:

Re: Re: I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

Right, and that company will make a huge effort to NOT give all of that data right to the NSA…sure.

I agree that an Outbox option is an interesting idea and I agree with a lot of the comments here, but I just don’t get the beating up of the Post Office. Given the ever increasing security problems at the core of the Internet, I think it’s a good idea to keep our options open, in regards to payments, and financial & medical documents, i.e. the hated United States Postal Service.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re: I'm going to side with the USPS on this one

Ha, nice deflection, but no.

If I have someone who I pay opening my mail, that person is my employee. If that person divulges the data in my mail or otherwise uses it in a manner inconsistent with my wishes, THEN that person gets fired. And sued. Into abject poverty.

When was the last time that was possible with the DOJ, the NSA, the FBI, over-reaching cops?

Please don’t be willfully obtuse.

william (profile) says:

In my neighbourhood, we have centralized mailboxes (so they don’t have to deliver door to door and save some man hours). Some people don’t like it, but I like it because the mail slot is right next to the mailbox.

If I pick up my mails and found there are junk mails which does not have my address on it, I slip them right into the mail slot.

After a few month of doing that, one day I found a sticker on the mail slot which says, “Please take the fliers home to recycle instead of using the mailbox.” In which I added a sticker of my own, “I’ll stop using the mailbox when you stop sending me unwanted junk mail.”

william (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, I think you are quite wrong on this one.

1. It’s a locked mailbox, not a mail slot on my door. You need a post office master key to open the boxes to deliver these junk mails, eliminating possibilities that others drop those in

2. It’s “un-addressed mail”, for example, a flier for a local car dealer having a sale and sending out a flyer. The post office doesn’t have to deliver it to me because it does NOT have my name, nor address on it. They received, for example, 10,000 sheets and is just putting them on ANYONE and EVERYONE’s box.

3. The “Post Person” is not dealing with it. They just collect everything and dump into a bag to have the machines sorted. It’s the post office that has to deal with it.

Carl Reese says:

Re: Re:

Except snail mail is not useless. Until the authorities are compelled to comply with the law, and until privacy protections are well-established, and until I can cross the border without fear of some jerk hiding behind a badge taking my laptop away, snail mail will ALWAYS have at least one use.

I will say the reverse of what you said, because anyone who says what you said must be a millenial: This is a case of young people with no sense of history, and no respect for what came before, who have every desire to wipe the slate clean and build their Akira-scented future without regard to consequence, trying to kill off the last semi-useful relic of the generations before without thinking it through.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Now there’s a scary thought. We have an SSN, a drivers license number (or state ID), probably several I can’t think of right now, and the next step is to have a registered public key at your friendly government office so they can send their ‘service letters’ in an encrypted format with a prohibition of never revealing that communication to anyone, including your higher power.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Until then, paper mail at least minimizes mass collection of personal data.”

I’m not so sure. Most mail is processed in major regional centers nowadays. One of the things they do is scan each and every piece of mail to perform OCR on it so it can be automatically routed.

Are they keeping those scans around after the routing? They certainly are when performing mail covers, at least, but why wouldn’t they just do it routinely?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Of course they keep it – and I’m pretty sure I’ve read articles admitting that they do.

It’s just more “metadata” that the government believes it is entitled to harvest/collect, and keep indefinitely.

They probably use it, just like phone records, to connect people to one-another, or discover people’s habits, such as banking, shopping, personal interests, etc.

I promise somewhere there’s a database of information on every one of us based on what mail we send/receive.

Baldaur Regis (profile) says:

Best! Statement! Ever!*

According to Evan, the Chief of Digital Strategy’s comments were even more stark, “[Your market model] will never work anyway. Digital is a fad. It will only work in Europe.”

The Chief of Digital Strategy says “digital is a fad.” Back to the abacus, I guess, and what exactly is he getting paid for again?. The fellow then doubles down and says “It will only work in Europe.” What, American 0s and 1s don’t fit in the slot? Too fat? Only svelte European digits will work?

*This one statement supersedes all previous Best! Statements! Ever!

Anonymous Coward says:

“You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers?about 400 junk mailers are our customers. Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”

This explains why I’ve had to deal with support the last three times I’ve had packages delivered through the USPS.

Anonymous Coward says:

Earth Class Mail

Earth Class Mail (https://www.earthclassmail.com/) has been doing this for YEARS (at least 10). They shred everything unless you ask for it to be forwarded and they will even deposit checks for you.

The postmaster is clueless, I’m sure there are tons of other companies providing a similar service. Now that their Priority Mail rates have basically doubled, I’m no longer using them for shipping, the one thing where they were cost competitive.

Circling the drain would be a good metaphor for where USPS is headed.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘The USPS destroying Outbox is just one in a long line of depressing examples’ the most notable of which, that has not only been supported but been ensured of constant preferential treatment, being Hollywood and the entertainment industries! the progress that has never come to fruition because of how politicians have mollycoddled the industries, giving them everything they ask for (even demand!), just so as to enable them to remain in the pre 1970’s. it’s disgraceful!!

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