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.