US Congress to debate consumer right to printed communications

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 01/23/2013

Congress will soon debate the rights of Americans to continue receiving paper communications from the federal government, thanks to a Washington, DC-based advocacy group.

January 17 2013

by David Ward, via PrintWeek

In an exclusive interview with PrintWeek, John Runyan, executive director of Consumers for Paper Options, suggested the matter could be introduced to the US House of Representatives in a matter of weeks.

"Our first step will be a Sense of the Congress resolution as opposed to a statutory change," he explained. "It will ‘express the sense of the House of Representatives that the federal government should take all appropriate measures to ensure that citizens continue to be provided with paper-based information products and services, while providing  the ability for all citizens to opt in for electronic delivery if they so choose'."

No specific federal agency is mentioned, but Runyan does want to push government workers to come to a consensus that includes preserving paper-based communications for a host of functions, including for example Social Security payments to the elderly.

"We are going to Congress to get them to encourage these federal agencies to take a more unified look at what’s happening throughout the government" he noted. "I doubt there’s a single person in the government who really understands what’s happening with this issue across all the agencies."

"Right now 30% of Americans aren’t online at home," Runyan continued. "And 45% of senior citizens don’t own a computer, so we clearly have a digital divide and as a country are really not ready for the government to decide that digital is the only form of communications for our citizens."

Consumers for Paper Options is largely the brainchild of the Envelope Manufacturers Association, Runyan said, adding the group works with many other advocacy groups, including Consumer Action, the National Consumers League, the National Association of Post Masters, Rural Letter Carriers, the National Newspaper Association, the Taxpayers Union, the Grey Panthers and the US Postal Service Inspector General’s Office.

"We’re networking wherever we can," he added. "The PIA (Printing Industries of America) is on our steering committee. We’ve had discussions with AARP (the leading advocacy group for US seniors) regarding the plan by pension plan managers to have all pension plan information sent electronically."

Even though it was only established last year, Runyan’s group has already helped secure a major victory recently at the state level.

"There was a battle in California over a bill in the state assembly that would have mandated electronic only delivery of important policy based insurance information - and the citizen could opt in to receive it in paper form," he said.

After it was alerted to the bill, Consumer for Paper Options brought it to the attention of several powerful California groups who would have been impacted as well. The groups quickly sought to remove a portion of the bill that would have given these insurers to ability to impose fees on consumers who requested paper based communications. Faced with that opposition, the bill was quietly shelved.

While all of Consumers for Paper Options’ current efforts are focused on government policies toward paper and electronic communications, Runyan said he hopes the debate going on in Washington will also reach the private sector - including segments like the financial industry.

In their efforts to push most of their consumers toward electronic communications, many banks and other financial institutions are looking at the potential of adding fees and penalties to discourage their consumers from keeping paper as their primary communications platform.

"We are just ramping and expanding our capability and we’re looking to broaden our effort," he said. "Long term we want to encourage the private sector not to rush into digital only presentations, but rather rely on the consumer to decide how they want to receive it."