As America was expanding in the 1780s, the founding fathers realized that open access to secure and private communication among its dispersed citizens was critical to forming political groups and holding free elections without fear of retribution. The U.S. Constitution empowered Congress “to establish post offices and post roads,” the most common form of telecommunication (communication over a distance) in 1789. The founding fathers provided the necessary infrastructure to “bind” the growing nation together through communication and commerce. Thereby, the Post Office Department (now the U. S. Postal Service) was born.
In the late 1800s, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case involving conflicting interest between two electric telegraph companies, stated a broad interpretation of Congress’ constitutional postal powers:
“…The powers thus granted are not confined to the instrumentalities of commerce, or the postal service known or in use when the Constitution was adopted, but they keep pace with the progress of the country, and adapt themselves to the new developments of time and circumstances. They extend from the horse with its rider to the stage coach, from the sailing vessel to the steamboat, from the coach and the steamboat to the railroad, and from the railroad to the telegraph, as these new agencies are successively brought into use to meet the demands of increasing population and wealth.” (PENSACOLA TEL. CO. V. WESTERN UNION TEL. CO., 96 U. S. 1 (1877))
The Postal Service has modernized many times over, moving well beyond manually sorting letters and delivery mail via horse-riders. Today, however, people, government, and businesses are transitioning to using the Internet to communicate, because of lower cost and nearly instant delivery. Yet, the Internet lacks privacy and security in digital communications and transactions. In addition, Internet access is too expensive or merely unavailable for many elderly or poor citizens. While free markets excel at many things, enforcing privacy and security or providing access to disadvantaged groups have not been among the core responsibilities of the market. In America, these have historically been the duties of its representative government.
America’s requirements for a secure national communications system have evolved since the Constitution was drafted, but the fundamental need for such a system seems to remain. Does America need secure universal digital postal services as much today as it needed traditional mail in the past? What do you think?
This blog is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center.