Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The United States Electronic Postal Service

-- By VanessaW - 05 Mar 2013


Long before the internet created the possibility of an instantaneous and convenient electronic mailing service, the United States established the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), an independent government agency designed to fulfill the important task of carrying messages between parties. As more recent corporations have proven, it was not impossible for the private market to accommodate this need; UPS and FedEx are extremely profitable private enterprises that perform similar services to the USPS, and such enterprises could probably carry the market on their own, if allowed, especially given the declining profits of USPS.

This sentence seems to overlook the technological differences in transportation infrastructure between the late 20th century when these businesses flourished and the late 18th century, when the Postal Service was created, or the Railroad Empire of the late 19th century, in which we initiated Rural Free Delivery, the most important logistical achievement in our history.

Yet, the USPS was created and remains and active participant in the snail mail market. Given the quick implementation of a government-sponsored snail mail service, one might wonder why the government, which can control the band spectrum, would not have equally quickly dominated the electronic mail system.

Did wondering lead to the discovery of 39 USC §404(a) and the statutory definition of "postal services"? If so, I'm surprised you didn't discuss it.

Did wondering also lead you to consider the federated rather than centralized nature of email? There's no one to dominate it, even in the era of Gmail, because it's so easy for someone to set up and operate her own email server, and provide email services to anyone she wants.

A government sponsored email system, though likely to be less able to provide flashy extras and more likely to requirement some minimal payment for the service, could be easily created and solve one of the most pressing issues with email service today: invasions of privacy.

No, that would only make the government the invader of first resort. It would have the access data, even if it didn't have the email content, which would be intolerable. Why would you centralize a federated service in centralizing government hands? Why would you claim such a move would be good for privacy?

The Problem of Privacy in Email

What once we did by snail mail (back before it was “snail mail” at all), we now do be email. In developed parts of the world, email is most people’s primary method of written communication (with facebook and text messaging as prominent rivals). We use email to send people letters quickly and receive equally quick responses. Some people are constantly checking their emails, on their laptops, on their ipads, even on their phones. We send all kinds of information by email—business-related, academic, and even the extremely personal—and most of us use popular companies, like Google, to do so.

The problem with and other services like it is that as convenient, accessible and “free” as they are, they don’t come with one of the most fundamental protections most people want with their personal or business communications: privacy. If you actually read Gmail’s privacy statement, located in small print at the bottom of your inbox, they tell you overtly that they are collecting and using your information. They tell you that by using your service, you are giving them the right to access this information, and because they are not a government entity, they can do this without a warrant or legal authorization of any kind, even if they only did so in order to turn over what they found to a government agency.

One must wonder why so many people are ok with this situation. For one, there is the fact that the average person can tell herself that it’s only a machine reading her mail, that her mail is not interesting enough to actually warrant inspection by another human being. Because that would be creepy. But why should it be ok that it is be read at all? And if the right to read it, without any consent other than the uninformed kind that comes from a person impatiently clicking the “I have read the terms and conditions” when she hasn’t, becomes established, what is to stop a company from allowing individuals to read it? Perhaps the real reason so many people are “ok” with email services like Gmail is that we can’t see viable other options. If all trusted, brand-name private email companies are doing it, then what choice do we have?

Run your own mail server. It would cost you nothing, or $15 month if you wanted to do it the expensive way. Given what you pay for other services, fully private email would be a very substantial bargain. Yet you don't do it.

Solution: US Electronic Postal Service

It may sound weird to argue that the best way to protect the privacy of personal communications is to put it in the hands of the government; after all, who stereotypically has the greatest temptation to violate that privacy if not law enforcement agencies? Yet, we’ve done it before. The government ran, and to a large degree still runs, the transfer of physical communications between people through the United States Postal Service. In fact, having the government involved in such services actually gives them greater protection, because whatever the temptation to violate privacy, government action is still governed by constitutional restraints on search and seizure. Governments are required by law to respect privacy in a way that private companies are not.

Allowing government to enter the market as an email service provider would not by any means prevent the private actors already involved from continuing their services; it would simply offer people a reliable, brand-name alternative to email paid for with their own privacy rights. Perhaps the government would have to charge some nominal fee for the maintenance of this service, if it could not feasibly be funded through taxes, but it could also advertise as the one email service that provides real privacy, a privacy that they are bound to respect by law. If the government did enter the market in this fashion, it would additionally have an incentive to out the other email service providers for their invasiveness, as people’s greater awareness of their own lack of privacy with companies like Google and of a viable and trustworthy alternative would up its revenues. A government sponsored email service could be very competitive in the current market, for the very reason that it would allow us privacy, which we want, without the hassle of researching acceptable email providers or trying to develop our own.

Given the incredible problems for privacy that have arisen with the development of the internet and its services, problems which could never have been anticipated by those who wrote the laws protecting privacy, the government should take affirmative steps to offer people a viable alternative to unprotected emails.

I think some more thinking about how email works, and why it is a federated service by nature, would help to improve the essay substantially.


Webs Webs

r5 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
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