Liberally yours: Should the Post Office be in charge of your e-mails?

Thom Hartmann | Host, the Thom Hartmann Program

TheDC is proud to present our latest column, “Liberally Yours,” featuring the number one progressive radio host in the nation Thom Hartmann. Each week, he’ll kick off the discussion on a particular topic from a liberal perspective, followed by a conservative or libertarian rebuttal, and so on. This week, his interlocutor is Daily Caller opinion editor J. Arthur Bloom, and they’ll be considering the merits of the government getting into the e-mail business. Without further ado, here’s Thom:

Back in 1773, Sam Adams and a bunch of his friends met at a bar in Boston for a very important meeting. Before they started talking they made sure that no British spies were in the bar or in the immediate area. When they were sure that they were meeting in complete privacy, Sam Adams and his friends began conversations that ultimately led to the Boston Tea Party. To this day, we only know the names of 3 or 4 participants in the Boston Tea Party because the men who participated in it kept their promises to each other and put privacy above all else. Without privacy the Boston Tea Party would not have been possible. And therefore America would never have happened.

Fast forward to today: thanks to America’s out-of-control security state and above-the-law corporations, the expectation of privacy that the Boston Tea Partiers had in 1773 seems like only a dream today. Just ask Google. The internet giant thinks that Americans shouldn’t have an expectation of privacy. In a brief filed last month in federal court as part of a class-action lawsuit against Google for violating wiretap laws when it scans emails to serve up targeted ads, the company said that,”all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.” Google went on to say that, “Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS provider in the course of delivery.”

Unfortunately Google is right to an extent. Because it’s a corporation, Google can write any damn Terms and Conditions it wants and force its users to abide by them by requiring them to click the “I Agree to the Terms and Conditions” box to agree before signing up for Gmail service. And buried deep within Google’s Terms and Conditions the company does say that it “will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so.” But how many people actually read those Terms and Conditions? Most people could be signing away their lives and wouldn’t even know it.

In today’s age of diminishing privacy and increased corporate control, has it reached the point that instead of fearing the government we need to be fearing the corporate state? Maybe it’s time to hand control of our emails over to the federal government and the Post Office. After all, if the government were to provide email service, the Terms and Conditions of that service would be written by elected legislators, answerable to we the people. If we don’t like them we can elect new legislators to change them. And because they’re law, unlike with Google, if someone snoops on them, they can go to jail. After all, it’s currently a federal crime to open up another person’s first-class mail in the United States, and those same protections and laws could easily be applied to emails as well.

So, should the Post Office be in charge of email in the United States? Or at the very least be allowed by law to provide a secure encrypted email service alternative to Americans?


J. Arthur:

When Sam Adams and his pals got together in the prelude to the flagrant act of property destruction that was the Boston Tea Party, they knew they were contemplating treason. In other words, they planned to subvert the government under which they lived. This sort of revolutionary collusion does indeed depend on a certain amount of secrecy, but secrecy from whom? The government.

Treason is the same offense many have argued the government should charge Edward Snowden with, the leaker who brought to public attention the mass collection of personal communications. Setting aside the notion that handing control of Americans’ emails over to a federal agency is a good way to preserve the sort of subversive exchange embodied by our own revolutionaries, I think we can both agree there is very little left to hand over anyway.

Unlike ticking a terms-and-conditions box, we had no choice in this, and nobody in the government goes to jail for doing it. These are, effectively, the compulsory terms and conditions of using e-mail in the modern world. There are a great many Americans who would like to see those terms adjusted, but the fact is the omnipotent defense-security establishment is supported by both parties, to say nothing of the dubiously private industry that profits from it.

But say one wanted to centralize email services in one agency, like the Post Office monopoly (yes, that’s actually what it is). You wouldn’t want to start with Google, that would upset too many people; surely you’d want to start with one of those services that lie outside standard NSA surveillance. Perhaps Lavabit would make a good first victim, the encrypted email service that was recently shut down and its founder issued a gag order. Progress!

Should the government get into the business of providing e-mail service, even without the monopoly privileges enjoyed by the Post Office? The tens of thousands of people whose social security numbers were accidentally leaked might be a bit skeptical of the government’s assurances that their emails would be kept private. I honestly can’t imagine who would sign up. But sure, why not. The government does plenty of other pointless things.


Thom:

There’s often a fine (perceived) line between being the political opposition and committing treason – Jefferson basically accused John Adams of treason in the election of 1800, saying that Adams was in bed with the British. Adams accused Jefferson of pseudo-treason by suggesting that he was in bed with the French. This was pure politics, but was framed in the language of treason – language that is still used today by many in the Tea Party to describe Obama and the Democrats, and by antiwar activists to describe Bush’s behavior in Iraq. You don’t have to be Edward Snowden to be concerned about privacy, and to need privacy in order to effectively and successfully plan political activities and surprises.

With regard to the Post Office, I was not suggesting they should have a monopoly; merely that the law should be changed to allow them to compete with others for business in the arena of secure, encrypted email.

While there may have been a leak of Social Security information by the Social Security administration, that is nothing compared to how corporate America, on a daily basis, buys and sells your and my personal information, including the contents of our email and our web searches.

I frankly have more trust in an institution where I personally get to vote for the leadership, and can visit and lobby the management – as is the case with Congress – then in private corporations where if you try to lobby them they will have you arrested for harassment and trespassing, and you have absolutely no say in who is making the policies.

But, that’s just my choice. There will also be private, for-profit corporations offering secure, encrypted email services that you can patronize if you don’t like the Post Office.

My concern about them is that if they break their agreement with me and sell or give away my information, my only recourse is a lawsuit, which takes a lot of time and they have millions of dollars in resources to defend.

On the other hand, it’s a federal offense to violate the sanctity of first-class mail without a warrant. If the Post Office were to violate such terms, the recourse would be the same as it is right now with first-class mail – somebody goes to jail. That makes me feel like my communications are much more secure.

But if you prefer having your secure, encrypted emails handled by Google or even some small start-up down the street, that’s fine with me. I just wish you good luck if that small company declares bankruptcy and decides to sell all their information as an asset in the liquidation procedure, which they can do because bankruptcy invalidates contracts like the one guaranteeing your privacy.

The Post Office, with a 200-plus year history of providing secure, un-openable envelopes for the transportation and transmission of our first-class mail, is perfectly positioned to do the same electronically.

Old Ben Franklin had a pretty good idea. The Founding Fathers even wrote it into Article I of the Constitution, and I think we should make use of it.


J. Arthur:

You’re right that treason is a much-abused term, but the revolution is an instructive example precisely because what they were contemplating was the bona-fide, hang-you-if-you’re-guilty kind. A certain degree of subversive thought is healthy in a democratic society, and that’s precisely why the NSA’s carte-blanche surveillance — or the IRS pettifogging Tea Partiers — is so outrageous; they chill attempts to voice opposition to the regime.

The Post Office can be a tool for this sort of suppressive activity too, and it has been in the past. Mail censorship during wartime, for example, or shutting down its erstwhile competitors. The Comstock Act was used to censor everything from birth control pamphlets to James Joyce, and it’s still technically on the books today. To take one specific case, in 1916 the Post Office refused to carry Alexander Berkman’s San Francisco-based left-anarchist periodical Blast. They responded in an editorial declaring “we are tired of the whole pestiferous gang and of the postal tyranny. We hereby declare our independence from the Autocrat of the Post Office and of his governmental and plutocratic chiefs.”

Ah, the good old days, when leftist rhetoric was about more than privilege-checking and identity politics! Contra Berkman, you’re proposing we stop worrying and learn to love the Autocrat.

I don’t mean to suggest nothing could be done to bolster privacy on the private side. Most libertarians agree with Justice Sotomayor that the third-party doctrine needs another look. But at the same time, might you have been satisfied by the privacy protections of a company like Lavabit? We’ll never know now.

The fact is, though, the postal service made a lot of sense when the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, but it looks more and more archaic every day — especially with its massive yearly losses. Better to let the old gal die with dignity than burden her with massive new e-mail servicing responsibilities.

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