06 December 2012


'Privacy and Advertising Mail' (Berkeley Center for Law & Technology Research Paper, 2012) by Chris Hoofnagle, Jennifer Urban & Su Li considers
why Americans may frame the generation and receipt of unsolicited advertising mail as a privacy violation. We then present data from our nationwide survey showing that a very large majority of Americans, across all ideologies, educational attainment levels, age, and income levels, support the creation of a do-not-mail mechanism similar to the popular Telemarketing Do Not Call Registry. We discuss our results in light of the fact that direct advertising mail now makes up more than half of all mailpieces sent by the United States Postal Service (USPS).
The authors conclude -
In considering why Americans may think of advertising mail as a “privacy” issue, we suggest that this may be both because of the extensive collection and use of personal information targeting and sending it entails, and a reaction to a sense of intrusion created by receiving unwanted mailpieces. There is a little more information in the literature and court cases on the concept of “intrusion” than the concept of “privacy-control,” but the literature is lean overall, and the concepts have never been compared to one another, so we cannot say if one is more salient than the other. Our data contribute to the overall trend by showing that most Americans would like to have some ability to block advertising mail. This result is robust across political ideology, educational attainment, age, and income level. Both men and women strongly support the idea of DNM, though women support it more. 
Survey research showing annoyance with advertising mail and support for a do-not-mail mechanism does not in itself justify regulatory action. Nor does it specify how DNM should be implemented if it were adopted. Similarly, regulation of saturation and “Every Door Direct” mail may speak to Americans' interest in reducing intrusions into their home, but it would do little to address the interests in controlling the underlying collection and use of personal data. 
Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to consider interventions in this space to respond to Americans’ privacy concerns. Indeed, we think it would be reasonable to consider interventions, if not for privacy, then for the sake of the integrity of the USPS as one of America's great institutions. Especially in light of its fiscal constraints and lack of more broad-based support from Congress, the USPS sees advertising mailers as an important constituent and aggressively pitches new ways to get advertising mail intomailboxes. Over the years, it has failed to modernize the outdated and unwieldy Prohibitory Order process or create other innovations to help another main constituent—mail recipients—avoid unwanted mail. 
The USPS' fiscal challenges have created incentives for the agency that directly contravene recipients’ desire to manage advertising mail. Though only a limited number of studies exist, the strong thread among them is dislike for unwanted advertising mail; our results show a strong desire for opt-out control. The USPS' current course of increasing its reliance on advertising mail, while fiscally understandable, could cause all mail to simply become “junk” in the eyes of Americans. Americans who can abandon the USPS are more and more likely to in light of increasing advertising mail volumes. 
Given the importance of advertising mail as an industry, and of the USPS to United States economic, security, and social interests, our findings could serve as a wake-up call to markets, the USPS, and regulators to more fully explore citizens’ rejection of direct advertising mail and find ways to address their concerns while preserving the fundamental service provided by the USPS.