The Kauai junk mail program is a wake-up call

December 12th, 2012
By

ThinkTech Hawaii

Kauai County has announced a partnership with catalogchoice.org of Berkeley, California, to stop unwanted mail for people on Kauai. This is all good and the media has picked it up. It limits junk mail, saves on the effort of throwing it out, saves on landfill space and constrains the sale of personal data and identity.

The program, as offered by Catalog Choice, is free and is intended to let participants opt out of mail they don’t want to get, including phone books, catalogs, credit card solicitations and much more. You have to register with Catalog Choice, which contacts the companies that send the mail you don’t want and, on your behalf, asks them to stop sending it.

Kauai is doing this for stated environmental purposes, to save trees and avoid solid waste in the landfill. The web site of the partnership is https://kauai.catalogchoice.org. The main website for Catalog Choice is catalogchoice.org.

Actually, Catalog Choice is not the only one, but it may be the only free one. 41pounds.org, for example, will “take all the necessary steps to dramatically reduce your junk mail.” It’s the same idea but costs $35 for five years of service. I can’t say which one is better, but I’d rather pay nothing than $35.

You may ask why only Kauai. Isn’t the problem just as pronounced and irritating on the other islands? Well, all the other counties could do the same thing and make the same deal with Catalog Choice and there could be a similar Catalog Choice website for every county. On the other hand, you can go directly to catalogchoice.org and have exactly the same benefit without going through any government agency.

But the Postal Service has been delivering junk mail like this, and much more, especially around election time, from the beginning. It’s an industry, and many companies are dependent on junk mail marketing. It’s the American way, almost as if they have a right to do that. It’s not clear what happens if they thumb their noses at kindly requests made through Catalog Choice.org or 41pounds.org.

In any event, email has changed the way we do snail mail. Sure the Postal Service has been taking in all kinds of junk for years, but (a) the junk mail has increased in volume, weight and offensiveness, and (b) unless they are really lonely, most people don’t really want any of it.

Actually, junk mail is a huge nuisance, just as it is on the net because it gets in the way of real mail, the mail we need to get and want to get. So if we can stop or filter email on the web, certainly we should be able to do that for junk snail mail. This junk snail mail model was undoubtedly inspired by the email phenomenon.

I would guess that the Postal Service loses huge amounts of money on delivering the bulky items for bulk rates and they are probably delighted by the Kauai partnership with Catalog Choice. At the same time, they are under political pressure from marketing organizations to continue the status quo.

But it’s more than just environmental and landfill issues and the convenience of the Postal Service. The idea of limiting junk mail is an idea that’s newsworthy because we all realize that it may be over due. It’s the little guys fighting back.

Junk mail is not only annoying, it’s a huge waste. After the letter carrier delivers it to us, we have to go through it and waste our time. So beyond wasted expense to the Postal Service and in the postal rates we pay, we waste our time picking through it and throwing it away.

And it costs something to haul away all the junk from every house on the block. These costs and burdens are completely unnecessary because we don’t want the junk mail in the first place. It’s an insult not only to the mail system but to the economy. We are all paying for a service we never wanted.

The Constitution only says Congress will establish "a Post Office and Post Roads." It doesn’t create inalienable rights for marketers to flood the postal system with junk mail. Congress or for that matter the Postal Service could and should limit the junk mail by barring it on the opt-out basis or if unsolicited or by imposing more expensive rates and more stringent requirements.

There must be a legal way to filter it out, just as we filter out junk email and spam on every email computer system. Now that we know this can be done for email, if we are to save the postal system we need to do it for snail mail too.

The burden of solving this problem is not just on Kauai, or a well-meaning tech non-profit, it is on the whole country. It’s ultimately a federal problem calling for a federal solution.

Kudos to Kauai and Catalog Choice, but this solution seems so voluntary when limits on junk mail should be mandatory and enforceable. It reminds us of the phenomenon of junk marketing telephone calls, which we all hate to get.

The no-call list program has not been entirely successful, but it was a worthy effort. Now we should also have a no-send list for snail mail and put some teeth in it so there are sanctions on marketers who violate the wishes of their addressees.

If a sender wants to do junk mail, he should be required to respect that no-send list. As the power to proliferate junk robotic telephone calls and bulk junk mail increases with new database technology we really must do something to control it.

If these senders want to communicate with us they can always send email, when thanks to the other end of that technology we can block it.

The Kauai story is a wake up call, waking us up to the fact, if we didn’t already know it, that junk mail gums up the system, that it is a community nuisance, and that it has adverse environmental and economic effects. It’s also a wake up call that we can and should do something about it, whether we deal directly with organizations like Catalog Choice or through local government like Kauai County.

But it’s also a wake up call that a voluntary model like the one used by Catalog Choice may not ultimately do the trick. Once junk mail senders find that there are no meaningful sanctions, they may resume their earlier efforts with new boldness.

While the Kauai story demonstrates the problem, the efficacy of the solution is still in progress. It may ultimately require Congressional action, so this story should be a wake up call for Congress too.

See how technology changes even the traditional things we take for granted. This one-island wake up call is likely to gain attention beyond Hawaii, with positive effects on a growing problem, locally and nationally, that we have hitherto ignored.

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