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. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 2 May 2014 @ 2:43pm

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

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