Privacy advocates attack Postal Service e-mail plan

Technology industry groups are once against upset with the U.S. Postal Service for its latest proposed foray into e-commerce-a plan that would assign individuals an e-mail address linked to a physical mailing address-they say could have dramatic implications for individual privacy.

Postal officials say they have backed down from reports that they plan to link electronic and physical mailing addresses by explaining that, "everything we are doing in the realm of e-addressing is conceptual." But they are going forward with an aspect of the plan that would permit users to send e-mails and have them delivered to a physical address.

That service, dubbed Mailing Online and set for introduction in September, requires users to type in their messages at the postal service's Web site. The messages would then be directed to a postal contractor, who would print them out, sort them, and deliver them to the nearest post office for an expected fee of 41 cents for a two-page document.

"We have seen a fair amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt from the post office," said Dave McClure, executive director of the U.S. Internet Association. "The reality is that they haven't altered in any systematic way their plan to develop a database that links all e-mail and physical addresses, and they are planing to offer that to direct marketers."

McClure said he objected to linking plans on the grounds that such an e-mail address would immediately be flooded with unsolicited commercial e-mail, rendering it useless to the consumer. The only other alternative is for the post office to strike deals with government agencies to require certain official e-mails-such as information about drivers' license renewals-to go through the postal service address.

"Isn't this just another fiasco in which the post office is going to lose money?" McClure asked rhetorically.

Reacting to privacy concerns, postal officials said they had a 225-year history of being trusted with American correspondence, and claimed that the agency is forbidden from releasing information about a physical address-a proposal that would also apply to e-mail addresses, said Judy de Torok, a USPS spokeswoman.

"We do not support them getting into this, and would encourage lawmakers to exercise some oversight," said Jason Mahler, vice president and general counsel of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "There is no compelling need for a government agency to be involved in the provision of e-mail."

This isn't the first time that the technology industry has objected to e-commerce ventures by the postal service. Many groups reacted angrily-both on competitive and on privacy grounds-to the agency's electronic bill payment service announced in April.

"Both with e-bill payment and with electronic messaging services, and with physical mapping, they will know not only who sends who what, but the contents of the messages," said Rick Merritt, executive director of PostalWatch. "That has dramatic privacy overtones."

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