Here's one of the worst ideas on the Internet that I ever heard of...

The US Postal Service, according to legend, can meet its appointed rounds in rain, snow, sleet and dead of night. Now it aims to do the same on the Internet. I can hardly wait ;-(

Don't say it couldn't happen here. The newly independent Post Office is looking around for new sources of revenue. We all remember what the last postal strike cost them: that's when everyone and their uncle went out and bought fax machines, carving a hefty slice, for ever, out of their business. And the Post Office in Britain is looking at the current email boom with much trepidation.

The USPO is proposing digital postmarks. They are developing technologies to affix a digital postmark to e-mail sent through the Internet or other electronic networks. Except that email users can have this now if they want it without the US Post Office getting its hands on your mail.

Anyone that has ever been a victim of the US Post knows why getting them into the email loop is a bad idea. Any postal authority that can take three days to deliver a first class letter from one side of a street to another has no business anywhere near my email, especially since I use email for its speed and low cost. email postmarks would have much the same function as postmarks on regular hard copy mail.

Mark Saunders, a Postal Service spokesman explained that people want the same services for email that they get with snail mail. "We want to provide the same assurances for email and to guarantee the recipient of an electronic message that the sender is authentic. We also can validate if an electronic document was altered in transit." The Postal Service plan calls for an on-screen icon that affixes the postmark to email just before it is sent.

It is possible to do all that today with public key encryption for RSA Cryptographics or with the public domain PGP software. Better integration with email packages for this encryption technique is imminent, but the rub as far as today's email is concerned is that it is frequently impossible to ensure that the email was received and read by the addressee.

If a new standard is proposed it would probably come from somewhere other than the US Post Office so there would be global applicability. The Americans frequently forget that they don't own the Internet. Just reflect on some of the legislation passing through the US Congress now that purports to regulate the content of the Internet.

The Postal Service thinks that their electronic postmarks could "dramatically increase the number of people who use the Internet and other on-line services to exchange computerized mail". The postal agency could become a central authority to administer the security of e-mail. About 25 million people use the Internet. By the year 2000, 60 million Americans alone are expected to send and receive email.

The Post Office says "We see an opportunity to help with electronic commerce. People don't totally trust the Internet, or the security in there." I say "I don't trust the US Post Office to do any better job with my email than they do with the US Mail." Nor, following on with the Clipper chip controversy, do I trust them to have copies of all of my email. Would you?