The Postcard Fallacy

All too often, I hear people say that “the Internet is like a postcard” – or, using other expressions, imply that people on the net have no right to privacy. In particular, we hear this from the copyright industry, who claim that everything that happens on the internet is somehow public. This is a dangerous misconception that confuses what people can do with what people should do.

As the analogy concerns postcards, let’s look at the old analog world for a while. People would predominantly send two types of messages by postal mail: postcards, which was a piece of cardboard where you wrote the message directly on one side of it along with its address, and letters, which would have the address on a sealed envelope and the message inside the sealed envelope.

The immediate observation here would be that postcards could easily be read by the mail carrier, whereas sealed letters couldn’t.

However, on closer inspection, this observation is not true. The old East German security service Stasi steamed open hundreds of thousands of sealed letters, read and scrutinized the messages inside, re-sealed the letters, and sent them on their way in the delivery system. This was a very labor-intensive process, of course, and therefore quite costly. And that’s the keyword, right there. Cost.

Postcards were cheap to read in transit. Sealed letters were expensive to read in transit. But they could indeed all be read.

In the 1980s, Western Europe defined itself as being proud of standing for human rights. In the East back then, governments would pay whatever amounts necessary to eliminate the right to communicate in private, whereas in the West, it just didn’t happen. Nobody considered if there was capacity to do it. Mail carriers were (and are) sworn to secrecy as to what they happened to read on postcards in transit.

Then, along comes the Net. The new communications carriers have the technical capacity to listen to anything and anybody, everything transmitted in private, just like the old Stasi did at an enormous cost. But today, it comes at almost no cost at all. Does that mean it should happen?

The people talking about the Net as “postcards” or “a public place” are implying that everything is wiretapped because of the way the technology works. But as we have discussed, the mail carriers could always read what people wrote to each other in private, only at varying degrees of cost and effort. The postcard people are not saying “You should wiretap all people and make the net public”; they’re saying “you can wiretap all people, and therefore, the net is a public place”. And by this, what they really mean is “you can wiretap all people at a reasonable cost using today’s technology”, and implying (but usually not saying outright) that it should therefore happen.

All this time in the 1980s, when Western Europe held people’s right to privacy in the highest regard and esteem – did it really just come down to the cost of violating it?

The freedom from corporal punishment is a human right, too, at the exact same level as the right to privacy of correspondence. Would we really start torturing people if we could only do it cheaply enough?

Or is it something else that must be used as a decision factor – namely, what we consider a fundamental human right, no matter whether it is cheap or expensive to violate using contemporary technology?

The conclusion here is that human rights do not depend on the cost of violating them. They are absolute. Just because it would be easy and cheap to violate somebody’s right to privacy when messages are transmitted on the net, that does not make the net a public place; the right to private correspondence still applies.

Mail carriers are still sworn to secrecy, people still have the right to expect privacy when sending correspondence, and the copyright industry does not get to say that anything happening on the net is theirs to look at, just like it wasn’t in the postal system.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Bidmead

    I think what people actually say is that sending EMAIL is like sending a postcard. This isn’t a moral or political point of view, just a statement of fact and a warning to those inclined to behave as if they’re communicating in private.

    If private communication is what you’re after, there are other and better ways of doing it.

    1. Rick Falkvinge

      This is a somewhat separate issue – making people aware that people in transit have the ability to read your e-mail, and it is therefore similar to a postcard (to use an analogy).

      But security consciousness on the individual level is a completely separate topic from policymaking and human rights at the national level.

    2. Jheral

      Which isn’t the point, really – a lot of people might not know that it can be done, and done easily.

      The point is that even if it can be done, it shouldn’t be – whether it is easy or not to read your emails without your consent, you shouldn’t _have to_ worry about it, because your fundamental rights should be respected.

      Good post btw, Rick. Now, to make it a reality… 😉

  2. Conrad

    honestly, I think this is twisting the facts a little?

    the only time I have ever heard the “Postcard Analogy” is by Phil Zimmerman – the inventor of PGP:

    -outlining the fact that encrypting your emails does NOT imply that you have something to hide – just as putting your correspondence into an envelope instead of writing it on a postcard for all to see, similarly, does not mean you are trying to hide something there either…

    it is simply because what you have written is PERSONAL – not necessarily illegal or nefarious or whatever…

    I know many governments prefer you to choose weak encryption – so they can “look inside your envelope” so to speak, at a far lower cost than having to break strong encryption to do so – again, I don’t think anyone has ever implied that anyone ever SHOULD be monitoring your communications, regardless how easy or difficult it might be to achieve – and regardless what medium you have chosen?

    the recent controversy over Girls Around Me:

    …is a good example of this – NOBODY is suggesting that neglecting your privacy settings on Facebook or Foursquare means that you somehow deserve for such public information about you to be exploited – quite the opposite – they are pointing at such examples of what is possible as a WARNING that you should take better care about what you choose to write on a postcard, and what you prefer to send in a sealed envelope…

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  4. richard childers

    My sense is that the postal services have been compromised for decades … and that letters have been getting steamed open everywhere – not just in Eastern Europe – and that while governments deferred, overtly, to the predominant mood of the times, that those whom did what was demanded by those in charge, inevitably replaced those whom did not, … in a perverse sort of ethical Peter’s Principle (or, perhaps, Gresham’s Law is more appropriate).

    And so, what you see is a speeding up of communications … and a speeding-up of surveillance, too.

    Everything is happening faster … the technologies involved have accelerated the process … but nothing has fundamentally changed.

    Greetings from San Francisco, and Silicon Valley,

    — richard

  5. Travis McCrea

    The only problem I have with this post, is that it assumes that the internet is a public service like the post office is. If I have a letter and I send it through a company called Face Post, and in their agreement that I sign to send the package it says “we can read and do with your mail whatever we want” then that’s their right.

    It might not BE right, but it’s something that you agreed to. However, they should not be required to hand that information over to anyone else as it’s a private communication on their own server.

    It’s a tricky thing.

    1. jorma

      Travis, i’m guessing you are american, what with the obsession with EULAS and Terms of Service 😛

      In reality the corporation called FacePost could never do what you suggest because they would be bound by secrecy of correspondence laws that forbids them to read mail sent with their service, regardless of the terms of service clauses.

  6. Ean

    I like the fact that you focus on “can” vs “should” in this blog entry. Integrity debate on the net focuses too much on technology in my opinion. Not saying technology is unimportant, its is important, but technology is what we use when we have made a decision (or often not) about how our internet presence should look like.

    Many people don’t care or don’t have the ability, guts, interest or stamina to make this technological decisions which are in line with their ideas of integrity. For them, relying on that the government and society can correctly separate “can” from “should” is crucial.

    As you mention, the cost of technology for assessing all of our communication is now quickly dropping. This opens up brand new possibilities for some very powerful organizations, most of them don’t give a shit about the ethics. They are ISPs/telecom operators, media industry and governments.

    Now, they soon are as powerful adversaries as are the cyber criminals and they all share the same interest – YOU.


  7. Beware The “Super-Public” « Wild Webmink

    […] In the real world, “public” is accompanied by practical realities that introduce a little friction. To listen to Alice and Bob in the  bar, Evan would need to sit close enough to hear them, and they’d probably notice and change their discussion. To see all the places Alice went and the things she likes, he would need to take the time to follow her covertly. His actions would quickly be apparent as obsessive and problematic – Rick Falkvinge explains this more. […]

  8. Crosbie Fitch

    The difference between a postcard and an envelope is that the latter may be an individual’s private space (physically secured), whereas a postcard is not.

    To open the envelope without permission (not a correspondent) is a violation of the sender’s privacy – which may only be warranted if the violation of another’s privacy or life is at stake. It is not warranted in the case of policing an 18th century privilege (an inherent injustice – a derogation of the people’s liberty).

    One of the less well recognised problems of the state (or its sponsoring corporations) policing private communications is that because those communications are a priori not transparent to the public, there is no means by which justice can be seen to be done, i.e. the state can plant or falsely allege incriminating private communications and there is no means by which the subject can prove otherwise. Public communications/statements can however be policed (against incitement to violence, privacy violations, fraud, etc.) because the communication is witnessed by the public.

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