If the postal service owned e-mail (PRESTEL)

MIT Technology review has an interesting article on “How the Postman Almost Owned E-Mail“.

I find it interesting—but not for the historical reasons. Rather, it illustrates the kind of delusional state people enter when they work too long in law or politics. The author of the piece seems to believe that if the US government had allowed the US Postal Service to operate an e-mail system, we’d all have ended up with USPS e-mail accounts.

In the UK, the Post Office did get permission to run e-mail systems. They had a system called PRESTEL. It was briefly relevant during the 80s, but bulletin boards grew up around it, then began connecting together. Soon there was a UUCP network. The situation was farcical by the early 90s; UUCP was chugging along at 9600bps or faster, but PRESTEL was still 1200bps to receive your mail—or a mind-numbing 75bps to send it. Then the UUCP networks got overseas links, TCP/IP started being rolled out to businesses, and it was all over for PRESTEL. Something similar happened in France with MiniTel, and I have no doubt that the same pattern would have been followed in the US if the USPS had been allowed to set up an e-mail system.

It’s probably blindingly obvious to everyone likely to read this, but passing laws and setting policies does not make things happen. If it did, there wouldn’t need to be a war on (selected) drugs. Yet even now, politicians who apparently live in a fantasy world are contemplating new laws to prevent Internet file sharing. Record companies apparently believe that if they get themselves proclaimed as the official source of online music, they will own the system of digital music downloads. They will then be able to build in whatever retarded copy protection systems they like.

The Post Office thought the same. They owned e-mail, so why did they need to offer faster downloads, file attachments, or international connectivity? They were the official system, and if they said 1200/75 with no error correction was good enough for the public, then it was. I mean, what were the public going to do—build their own e-mail network?