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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Erik Devereux
July 7, 2015
Several years ago as executive director of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), I found myself locked in combat with email. After repeated failed attempts to email a password to a university department chair, I asked the university to investigate. The findings: The university’s information technology office had decided, without any public warning, to block all inbound emails containing the word, “password!” It was a response to successful “phishing” attacks directed at the student body. (In case you are wondering, I immediately solved the problem by emailing the chair a “fubar.”)
Short of that extreme circumstance, we all know someone who has been sucked into the “hot mess” that email has become:
The business this has generated includes companies that ensure successful email delivery by calling the operators of each email system to assure them that the incoming messages are not malicious and to confirm that changes are made to the settings of the system to allow delivery. Sometimes, I am forced to confirm receipt of email with a phone call. These types of problems are gradually getting worse.
Another crucial problem with email used for professional purposes is that it does not fully satisfy legal requirements. We lack a reliable, universal system for verifying the identities of the sender and the recipient. There is no straightforward legal recourse in cases of misrepresentation or fraud by email. The courts are still trying to figure out how and when to elevate email to the same class of communication as a letter or other physical document.
Yet, we put up with these problems. Why?
We perceive email to be free but it is not. There are hidden and real costs, like paying for Internet access and managing an email server, and the implicit costs when email fails us, for example should a mission critical message fail to get through. If we recognize these costs, it would be evident that so-called free email is no bargain, especially in professional uses.
Recently, I heard Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter talking on National Public Radio about how the U.S. always gives information technology innovation a “free pass,” accepting it without any formal review to assess the balance of likely societal benefits and costs. Email has become a prime exhibit of that defective norm.
These concerns about email’s failure in professional communication is new. The authors of the U.S. Constitution understood the country needed a system of reliable communication as a crucial component of our civic and economic infrastructure. That is why operating the mail is one of the few responsibilities explicitly assigned to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8), elevating it to the same priority as national defense.
In crafting a document that generally steers away from specifics, the authors of the Constitution recognized the benefits of having a central public administrator for the mail. That infrastructure was too important to allow it to devolve into separate, uncoordinated postal systems as might have occurred under management by the individual states or the private sector.
As use of email became widespread in the early 1990s, it displaced the United States Postal Service (USPS) for a wide range of professional communication (especially once email could include attached documents). That unregulated transition to a fragmented electronic communication system operating on different platforms was neither inevitable nor in the long term interest of the country. While the trend is unlikely to reverse, USPS still could take action. USPS could generate new income that might help the financially beleaguered service turn the corner on its current woes. What I envision are the following email features that USPS might offer to individuals and organizations.
First, USPS could create a highly secure system for establishing a verified digital ID to use with email that will assuage legal concerns about identity. (If that reliable digital ID offered benefits outside of email, I predict a large share of the population would want to have those as well.)
Second, USPS could offer a pay-by-the-kilobyte email “pipe” that would guarantee messages sent through the pipe would reach the intended inbox. In fact, it could be mandated by law that any email coming out of that pipe would not be blocked or diverted by any recipient system within the U.S.
Third, USPS could offer its trained, experienced cadre of postal inspectors to address incidents of misrepresentation and fraud if committed using the USPS email pipe.
We drifted into the current problems with email, and the USPS fiscal crisis, when the rise of email vastly reduced the volume of first class surface mail. Underneath both is a failure to recognize the wisdom embedded in the Constitution that mission-critical professional communication is too important to leave to a fragmented delivery system operated by many different providers.
USPS should step in and fix both our email problems and its fiscal problems by re-asserting its intended role in our nation’s infrastructure.
Author: Devereux is an adjunct faculty at American University. He can be reached at [email protected].