Commentary: The Paper-Based Communications Option — It's Our Right, Right?
I’m an archivist. I assiduously gather and painstakingly file paper copies of bank statements, insurance policy documents, medical and health care records, investment reports, utility bills and tax invoices, traffic tickets, store receipts — and please feel free to stop me when you’re starting to get the idea. If I did it, bought it, underwent it, owed it or was owed it, or had some other kind of involvement with it, I can show you ink or toner on a piece of paper that spells out the connection in detail.
Hard-copy hoarders like me ought to be grateful for the work being done on our behalf under the banner of Keep Me Posted North America, a campaign promoting the right of consumers to receive communications in paper-based form. One of Keep Me Posted’s central arguments is that many people still don’t have the kind of access to computers and broadband Internet that many of the rest of us take for granted. These digital have-nots, through no fault of their own, don’t just prefer paper – they absolutely depend upon it for managing their everyday affairs.
Keep Me Posted, an activity of the paper advocacy organization Two Sides North America, is an excellent source of information about the necessity and the benefits of paper-based communications. The campaign also reports on what an uphill struggle preserving paper can be in the face of pressure coming from some business sectors to replace it with electronic alternatives.
Endorsing Keep Me Posted is the Coalition for Paper Options, an alliance that includes Printing Industries of America (PIA) and the Association for Print Technologies (APTech). The observance of World Consumer Rights Day on March 15 was an occasion for the groups to speak with one voice about the urgency of retaining the right to demand and receive paper-based communications.
But, do consumers have a genuine “right” to stick steadfastly to paper when other kinds of documentation arguably will work just as well? Set as I am in my file-clerking ways, I’m not so certain.
Yes, those without reliable Internet connections have to be protected against any attempt to limit their access to hard copy. But, apart from special cases, the perception of “rights” to things tends to rise and fall in proportion to the demand that exists for them. If a lot of people want something, it’s easy for them to claim as-of-right entitlement to it. But when it falls out of fashion, champions can be hard to find.
I think that this means asserting the right to paper wherever it makes good, practical sense to have paper, and not expending undue effort where it might not.
I may, for example, miss all those nice, white-canary-pink carbon forms I used to fill out, but I’m not going to bang a drum for their comeback. In the same way, there’s something a bit quixotic about a federal petition filed by the Coalition for Paper Options and other groups to block a move by the Securities and Exchange Commission to switch the default distribution method for annual and semi-annual mutual fund performance reports from mail to electronic delivery.
I wish the petitioners and their lawsuit well. Their arguments are cogent and persuasive. But, I can’t help thinking of what time and digital technologies have done to the financial printing industry and its mainstay products. I’m remembering that some of my earliest involvement with print had to do with the preparation of corporate annual reports – once, a coveted assignment that commercial printers everywhere pinned their yearly revenue projections on. The right to these things still exists. But today, we hear it as an echo of what used to be, not as the full-throated cry of current demand.
Still, it’s important to get behind what Keep Me Posted and its partners are doing to keep paper where it truly belongs in the B2C communications mix. My personal message to banks*, insurance companies, etc., is the same as theirs: if you’re presently sending me paper, keep it coming. Am I interested in electronic delivery instead? Don’t ask. And, quit trying to confuse me. I’m tired of worrying whether incorrectly checking (or unchecking) a box on your website is going to get me kicked off the paper trail once and for all.
This isn’t just curmudgeonly spleen on my part – it’s mainly common sense. Neuroscience tells us that we absorb information more thoroughly from printed pages than we do from screens. Paper shields us against data loss and e-fraud. Two Sides North America has all the information anyone needs to understand why the promise that we can “go green” by going paperless is a hornswoggle.
And, don’t forget: if they’re hellbent on taking the paper out of our electric bill payments and gym membership renewals, they won’t necessarily stop there. What’s in your wallet? Plastic credit cards and paper currency. To some retailers and merchants, the latter has become so hopelessly passé that they’re declining to accept it as payment. That is why Philadelphia, New York Cit and other cities have adopted or are considering legislation that would ban stores from refusing to accept cash from those who wish to use it.
I suppose all of this could be taken as my saying that the day I give up my paper documents is the day they pry them from my cold, dead fingers. Actually, that’s not what I’m saying, nor is it what I believe. I’m paper-based, and I’m protective of my right to remain that way – but within the boundaries of reason and practicality, and always with respect for the role that paper plays in helping us manage the administrative chores of our diligent, well-ordered lives.
Note: By law, banks must make paper statements available for credit card, bank and mortgage accounts. The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, or E-Sign Act, allows financial institutions to swap paper bills and disclosures for digital ones, but only when a consumer consents. (Source: Consumer Action, January 15, 2019)