US postal service explores delivering mail online

In an attempt to further harness the power of the Internet to improve communication, the US Postal Service said it's exploring the possibility of offering consumers the ability to have their mail delivered electronically.

In an attempt to further harness the power of the Internet to improve communication, the US Postal Service (USPS) said it's exploring the possibility of offering consumers the ability to have their mail delivered electronically.

USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan said such a service -- which would link customers' electronic addresses with their physical addresses -- would allow consumers and businesses to choose the way they do business with the Postal Service.

"Under this [voluntary] system, a customer would come to the postal service and fill out a questionnaire designating which companies [including utilities, credit card companies and retailers] he would like to receive electronic mail from," she said.

"The service would be a sender-based model, because the sender would then have to pay to send mail to the customer. For example, LL Bean could pay to send an electronic version of its catalogue to a customer, rather than pay to send it to a physical address."

Brennan said the USPS believes the fact that senders would have to pay to send electronic mail to consumers will prevent spamming. But, she stressed, the idea is only in the exploratory stage.

"We are in no position to launch this in the near future," she said.

To take advantage of the service, Brennan said, residents would need an Internet connection and either a private email address -- such as one from America Online, Yahoo or another ISP -- or sign up for a free email account offered by the USPS.

Brennan said consumers could access their mail through their Postal Service email accounts, or have it forwarded to their private accounts.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) -- a Washington-based association that represents computer industry vendors including Yahoo, Intuit and Netscape Communications -- is concerned about how well customer information will be protected and the impact of the government entering into competition with private-sector e-commerce companies.

"This is just part of a broad array of services the Postal Service is planning to get involved in, in the area of e-commerce. We don't see the need for a government agency to get involved in a robust [market]," said Jason Mahler, CCIA vice president and general counsel.

"We don't think [private companies] should have to compete with the government."

Brennan wouldn't comment on the competitive aspect, but did say that customers' privacy would be protected.

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