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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  1. identicon
    Carl Reese, 2 May 2014 @ 1:03pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

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