Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project
Postal Service Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY

- Common Carriage
- Email
- USPO & Email
- Telegraph

- Privacy

- Notes

Communications networks have progressed over time in the United States. The first communications network is the postal service - then comes the telegraph network, the telephone network, and finally the Internet. All of these are two way communications networks which provide service for a fee to the public. The pulbic policy for these communications networks is fundamentally the same. Postal service, telegraph and telephone are common carriers; policy regarding the Internet is being worked out in the Network Neutrality debate but is fundamentally common carriage. In all of these networks, the network carried a third parties information for a fee to the destination of the third parties choice. The network could not discriminate with regard to that content, both in terms of the content itself and with regard to the order received and transmitted. The network could not examine that content. The networks could engage in reasonable network management.

The Founding Fathers recognized the importance and value of a communications network. So much so that building the communications network, with the technology they were aware about at the time, was placed within the Constitution itself:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;... To establish post offices and post roads;...

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8

There is much to be learned from past policy history that would inform today's policy debates.

Network Neutrality

The postal service may not examine or read the content it carries. It cannot charge different rates based on the information carried (it can charge different rates for the form of the post - different rates for letters, magazines, or newspapers - but not different rates for the Cleveland Plain Dealer as opposed to the New York Times). It must deliver to the destination requested by the sender. It must serve all parties.

But this was not always so. Paul Starr in his book, The Creation of the Media, recounts the origins of the Postal Service in the United States.

Nationalization of Telecommunications

The USPS has long since tried to nationalize / postalize competing telecommunications services. Starting at the end of the 19th Century, the USPS lobbied to have the telegraph and telephone services nationalized. The USPS efforts were eventually successful during World War I, when both telephone and telegraph were nationalized for a brief period. The experiment was generally considered a failure, and network services were quickly returned to the control over their private owners. In the late 1970s, the USPS began to wake up to the reality of email. The USPS intiated its own alternative ECOM service while simultaneously attempting to make email illegal. In 2011, admidst the national budget crisis, drastically decreased use of mail, and significant shortfalls in the USPS budget, the USPS launched a series of scare ads, aimed at convincing the public that email was not safe to use for communications.

  • Frank G. Carpenter, Henry Clay on Nationalizing the Telegraph, 154 N. AM. REV. 380, 382 (1892)
  • Clark, The Telegraph and Telephone Properly Parts of the Post-office System (Arena, March 1892) (" Asserts that the government lost control of the telegraph only by accident and that there are the best of reasons for its resuming the right. ")
  • 1912: Britian nationalizes its telephone service. By 1913, most nations had nationalized their telephone service.
  • Government Ownership of Electrical Means of Communication, S. DOC. NO. 63-399, at 19-36 (2d sess. 1914).
  • 1915: The Postalization of the Telephone: Hearing on H.R. 20471 Before the House Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads, 63d Cong., 3d Sess. (1915)
  • 1918-1919: USG Nationalizes telephone and telegraph service during World War I
  • 1977: USPS launches ECOM
  • 2011: USPS launched a series of scare ads, aimed at convincing the public that email was not safe to use for communications.
  • Angela Greiling Keane, Postal Service Tells E-Mailing Businesses Paper Cant Be Hacked, Businessweek, Nov. 5, 2011
  • Timeline

  • 1765: Britian imposes Stamp Tax on the colonies. A tax imposed on every piece of paper, from newspapers and documents to playing cards. Britian impsed the tax for the purpose of raising funds for the defense of the "frontier" near the Appalachian Mountains. [Williamsburg]
  • 1753: Benjamin Franklin appointed Deputy Post Master of North America. [Starr 66] [PBS]
  • 1737: Benjamin Franklin appointed Post Master of Philadelphia. [USPS Pub. 100 Colonial Times] [Starr 60] [PBS]
  • 1700s: Post Offices were frequently local taverns where mail would be delivered to be picked up be local residents, or dropped off to be picked up by a carrier. The mail sat easy exposed to the prying eyes of any gentleman who might be enjoying a beverage in the tavern.
  • 1639: First notice of mail service in the colonies [USPS Pub. 100 Colonial Times]
  • 550 BC: postal service invented Persia
  • 2400 BC: courier networks found in Egypt
  • Privacy / Interception of US MAil



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