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;...
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.
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.
1982: USPS initiates E-COM electronic mail service
The Postal Reoganization Act of 1970 enacted by Congress abolished the Post Office Department as a cabinet level agency of the executive branch. Postal functions were transferred to an independent Government agency known as the United States Postal Service, which commenced operations on July 1, 1971.
"On August 12, 1918, the Post Office Department took over airmail service from the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS). Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger appointed Benjamin B. Lipsner, who left the USAAS, to head the civilian-operated Air Mail Service. He would remain only until December 6, when he resigned over what he felt were wasteful and ?unnecessary expenditures.? One of Lipsner's first acts was to hire four pilots, each with at least 1,000 hours flying experience, paying them an average of $4,000 per year. The department also abandoned the polo grounds in Washington, D.C., and moved north to the larger airfield at College Park, Maryland, where it would begin its route to Philadelphia." [US Centennial of Flight Commission]
Post Office Act of 184 and 18515, greatly reduces cost of postage, making it affordable for personal use (not just business and news)
1791: Bill of Rights Ratified
Paul Starr contrasts the new rights to those enjoyed in Britian: "Most provisions in the Bill of Rights restated rights that the Englished had enjoyed under the common law, but one element that grew specifically out of the Revolution era was the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the placed to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." The reference to "papers" underlines the historical connection of the Fourth Amendment to freedom of expression." [Starr 95]
1788: Ninth state ratifies Constitution giving Congress the power to establish the Postal Service.
1781: Congress ratifies Articles of Confederation, including:
"The United States in Congress assembled shall also have the sole and exclusive right and power of . establishing or regulating post offices from one State to another, throughout all the United States, and exacting such postage on the papers passing through the same as may be requisite to defray the expenses of the said office ." Article IX
1775: Continental Congress establishes a Post Office. Benjamin Franklin was the first Post Master. The Continental Congress was concerned to establish a postal service that was secure and free from search and seizure by British authorities - and anyone else for that matter. Postal riders "had to swear to secure his mail under lock and key" [USPS History] [PBS]
Britian dismissed Franklin as Post Master [USPS Pub. 100 Colonial Times] [PBS]
William Goddard establishes the Continential Post, independant from the British postal service. Goddard warned about the British service:
"Letters are liable to be stopped & opened by ministerial mandates, & their Contents construed into treasonable Conspiracies; and News Papers, those necessary and important vehicles, especially in Times of public Danger, may be rendered of little avail for want of Circulation ... " [USPS Pub. 100 Colonial Times]
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
Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1877). (“the right of the people to be secure in their papers against unreasonable searches and seizures [4th Amendment] extends to their papers, thus closed against inspection, wherever they may be. Whilst in the mail, they can only be opened and examined under like warrant, issued upon similar oath or affirmation, particularly describing the thing to be seized, as is required when papers are subjected to search in one's own household”)