The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

Chatham House, London



** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.”


Evidence of Benefits from Opening the White House Press Briefings via Skype Seats

I’ve argued on this blog that the idea of enabling the press to ask questions from outside the White House Press Office, in fact, outside the Washington DC Beltway, was a good idea. Some anecdotal evidence is being reported that the strategy is working. USA Today reported that over 13 White House press briefings, Sean Spicer has taken questions ‘from 32 outside-the-Beltway outlets’. This is a great example of using the Internet to enable more distributed participation. The Washington press is obviously defensive when people complain about the ‘media bubble’ in the briefing room, but the potential for what was once called ‘pack journalism’ is real, and location matters. Geographically distributing contributions is symbolically and materially opening the briefings up to more diversity of viewpoints and issues. th-1

Inevitably, more voices means more competition among the journalists in asking questions. But there are already too many in the room, and why it is fair to give more access to the outlets that can afford to station staff in Washington DC is not clear to me. That said, the Skype seats will always be the cheap seats, and be less likely to get their turn in the question and answer sessions.

My earlier post is here.

Twitter Foreign Policy and the Rise of Digital Diplomacy

Recent Chinese concerns over ‘Twitter Foreign Policy” are just the tip of the iceberg on the ways in which the Internet has been enabling diplomacy to be reconfigured, for better or worse. Over a decade ago, Richard Grant, a diplomat from New Zealand, addressed these issues in a paper I helped him with at the OII.[1] Drawing from Richard’s paper, there are at least five ways in which the Internet and social media are reconfiguring diplomacy:

  1. Changing who participates in diplomacy, creating a degree of openness and transparency, for example through leaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, that puts diplomacy in the public eye, establishing an entire field of “public diplomacy”;
  2. Creating new sources of information for diplomacy, such as when mobile Internet videos become key to what is known about an event of international significance;
  3. Speeding up diplomatic processes in response to the immediacy of news about events in the online world that require more rapid responses in order to be more effective, such as in challenging misinformation;
  4. Pushing diplomacy to be more event-led, when the world knows about events that diplomats cannot ignore; and
  5. Eroding borders, such as enabling diplomats to communicate locally or globally from anywhere at any time.  th-1

These transformations do not diminish the need for diplomats to serve a critical role as intermediaries. If anything, the Internet makes it possible for diplomats to be where they need to be to facilitate face-to-face interpersonal communication, making the geography of diplomacy more, rather than less, important. However, it poses serious challenges for adapting diplomacy to a globally digital village, such as how to adapt hierarchical bureaucracies of diplomacy to respond to more agile networks, and how to best ‘join the conversation’ on social media.

[1] Richard Grant (2004), “The Democratization of Diplomacy: Negotiating with the Internet,” OII Research Report No. 5. Oxford, UK: Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See  Also discussed in a talk I gave last year on Mexico in the New Internet World, see:

Email Disrupting Life at Home?

Email Disrupting Life at Home? Careful What You Ask For

In France and other nations there is discussion of somehow banning email after 6pm or outside of working hours. For example, see here. Perhaps this could help provide a better work-life balance or prevent households from competing with email for the attention of their family. But this raises not only problems of implementation, but also the reverse – shall we start policing the personal use of communication and information technologies like email in the office?


Implementation would be impossible. You could get email at home or outside of work hours, but also work related Tweets, texts, messages, calls, video calls, WeChats, social media posts, and more. Email is only one avenue into the household, and declining in use relative other social media and other new media. Implementation would also be problematic by what would be a regulatory overreach, with public regulation reaching into the use of media in the households and private companies and NGOs, etc.

But the greatest threat is that this will go both ways. Companies, government departments, NGOs and others will want their employees and managers to stop using electronic media for personal reasons while at work, or during the work day, such as checking on your children, or making reservations, or getting any personal emails.

The first dissertation I supervised on corporate email was in 1980 and one of the key issues in these early days when email was beginning to be used in business instead of telegrams or faxes, was a worry that employees would use email for personal reasons that had nothing to do with work. My response then and now has always been that this should not be a worry. Personal uses of email at work are helpful for the morale and time management of people in the workplace, and – it goes both ways – email will enable employees to handle some business at home. And especially in the early days of email, personal use helped bring business people online, as then and now, many resist the use of online media for business purposes. There is a positive synergy (sorry to use that word) between the use of communication technologies at home and at work – a win-win.

Encourage and teach individuals to manage their time and self-regulate their engagement with work from home and vice versa, but don’t try to regulate something for which no one size fits all.

BBC news coverage:

10th Anniversary of OII’s DPhil in Information, Communication & the Social Sciences

It was a real honour today to speak with some of the alumni (a new word for Oxford) of the Oxford Internet Institute’s DPhil programme. A number came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DPhil. It began four seemingly long years after I became the OII’s founding director in 2002. So while I have retired from Oxford, it was wonderful to return virtually to congratulate these graduates on their degrees.

The programme, like the OII itself, was hatched through four years of discussions around how the Institute (which is a department at Oxford University) should move into teaching. Immediately after my arrival we began organizing the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme (SDP), which was an instant success and continues to draw top doctoral students from across the world who want to hone their thesis through an intensive summer programme with other doctoral students focused on Internet studies. The positive experience we had with this programme led us to move quickly to set up the DPhil – and four years is relatively quick in Oxford time.

As I told our alumni, the quality of our doctoral students has been largely responsible for the esteem the OII was able to gain across the university and colleges of Oxford. That and the international visibility of the OII enabled the department to later develop our Masters programme, and continue to attract excellent faculty and students from around the world. th-1

I am certain the OII DPhil programme has and will continue to progress since I left Oxford in 2014, such as in adding such strong faculty as Phil Howard and Gina Neff. However, I believe its early success was supported by four key principles that were part of our founding mission:

First, it was anchored in the social sciences. The OII is a department within the Division of Social Sciences at Oxford, which includes the Law Faculty. In 2002, but even since, this made us relatively unique given that so many universities, particular in the USA, viewed study of the Internet as an aspect of computer sciences and engineering. It is increasingly clear that Internet issues are multidisciplinary, and need a strong social science component that the social sciences should be well equipped to contribute. Many social sciences faculty are moving into Internet studies, which has become a burgeoning field, but the OII planted Internet studies squarely in the social sciences.

Secondly, our DPhil emphasized methods from the beginning. We needed to focus on methods to be respected across the social sciences in Oxford. But also we knew that the OII could actually move the social sciences forward in such areas as online research, later digital social science, and big data analytics as applied to the study of society. The OII did indeed help move the methods in the social sciences at Oxford into the digital age, such as through its work on e-Science and digital social research.

Thirdly, while it is somewhat of a cliché that research and teaching can complement each other, this was always the vision for the OII DPhil programme. And it happened in ways more valuable than we anticipated.

Finally, because Oxford was a green field in the areas of media, information and communication studies, with no legacy departments vying to own Internet studies, we could innovate around Internet studies from a multi-disciplinary perspective. And we found that many of the best students applying to the OII were multidisciplinary in their training even before they arrived, and understood the value of multidisciplinary, problem-focused research and teaching.

As you can see, I found the discussion today to be very stimulating. My 12 years at Oxford remains one of the highlights of my career, but it is so much enhanced by seeing our alumni continue to be engaged with the institute. So many thanks to Dame Stephanie Shirley for endowing the OII, and the many scholars across Oxford University and its Colleges, such as Andrew Graham and Colin Lucas, for their confidence and vision in establishing the OII and making the DPhil programme possible.

Remember, the OII was founded in 2001, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst and at a university that is inherently skeptical of new fields. Today the Internet faces a new wave of criticisms ranging from online bullying to global cyber security, including heightened threats to freedom of expression and privacy online. With politicians worldwide ratcheting up attacks on whistleblowers and social media, claiming undue political influence, threats to the Internet are escalating. This new wave of panic around the Internet and social media will make the OII and other departments focused on Internet studies even more critical in the coming years.



Joining Editorial Board of Internet Histories

Delighted to be joining the editorial board of an exciting new journal, Internet Histories: Digital Technology, Culture & Society.

You may have seen a special issue of Information & Culture that I helped edit and contributed to: Guest Editor: Haigh, T., Russell, A. and Dutton, W. H. (2015) (eds), ‘Histories of the Internet’, special issue for the journal Information & Culture, 50(2), May-June: 143-283. We were calling for more focus on exactly this area.

The editors note that “Internet Histories is an international, interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal concerned with research on the cultural, social, political and technological histories of the internet and associated digital cultures.

The journal embraces empirical as well as theoretical and methodological studies within the field of the history of the internet broadly conceived — from early computer networks, Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems, to everyday Internet with the web through the emergence of new forms of internet with mobile phones and tablet computers, social media, and the internet of things.

The journal will also provide the premier outlet for cutting-edge research in the closely related area of histories of digital techologies, cultures, and societies.

A hallmark of the journal is its desire to publish and catalyse research and scholarly debate on the development, forms, and histories of the internet internationally, across the full global range of countries, regions, cultures, and communities. You can read more about the journal here

Internet Histories will be published by Taylor & Francis 4 times per year (four digital issues, compiled in two print issues) commencing in early 2017.”

The editors of this new journal are: Professor Niels Brügger, School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University; Assistant Professor Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan; Professor Gerard Goggin, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney; and Dr Valérie Schafer, Institute for Communication Sciences, CNRS/Paris-Sorbonne/UPMC.

I hope you will consider submitting your best work around this topic to the journal.



Trapped in the Web of Forms

Trapped in a Web of Online Forms

Most handwringing over the Internet is focused on social media and worries over the decline of civility, such as with online bullying or harassment. It might be that this focus misses one of the most worrying trends online for me, which is the migration of interpersonal communication to interaction with online forms. I’m afraid of being trapped in a world wide web of forms and templates that distance me from communication with real human beings.

Forms are not new and they can be a good thing. We have to fill in forms to apply for jobs, credit cards, universities, and virtually everything. The Internet and Web make it easier to create and complete a form. The problem is that this is becoming so easy that too many individuals and organizations are creating too many forms for too many things. It is clearly the case of too much of a good thing.

In fact, we are creating so many forms that there is a demand for software for individuals to use to fill out forms. You can automate your completion of forms, such as automatically filling in your email and address details. But this just throws gasoline on the fire, making easier and easier to complete forms, and incentivizing the use of more forms. imgres-1

The problem is that they can distance people from communicating with real people. You fill out a form instead of speaking to a person. No person may read your completed form. It is processed automatically – it can be truly automated. In fact, if you wanted to speak with a real person about the form and its purpose, you might find it difficult if not impossible to do so. In short, forms are increasingly mediating if not substituting for human communication.

They also shift the workload – the costs. Forms are one of the lifelines of bureaucracies and, not surprisingly, Web-based forms are literally automating bureaucracies. Any bureaucrat can create a form to replace actually talking to people. This is an approach to shifting the workload from the bureaucrat to the individual customer, staff person, citizen, or consumer. Instead of a manager or bureaucrat sifting through files to pull together specific information about a particular population, say his or her staff, s/he asks the staff to fill in a Web-based form. Wah lah, each individual has to do the work, and the results are automatically aggregated on a simple spreadsheet. No work for the administrator, but the administrator is somewhat distanced from the quality and nature of the information, which s/he might have gathered from assembling it the old way.

By replacing more direct interaction, forms can also eliminate or reduce tacit knowledge that can be gained through interpersonal communication, such as with students. Step by step, online courses are moving teachers away from direct contact with students. Contact will be the exception rather than the rule. Once a team of instructors set up a course, with automatic enrollment, payments, assignments, and grading, only the problems bubble up to be handled by the live instructors, and maybe even the professor versus online teaching assistants. As a teacher, I cannot help but believe this will inevitably undermine the instructor’s sense of the audience – the students. Arguably, the instructor will know more, such as how many students watch which videos, looked at which slides, and scored what marks on each assignment. And they can reach thousands of students rather than tens or hundreds of students. But this automation of the virtual classroom is just added incentive to automate ever more of the teaching experience.

I for one do not want to go back to a day of filling in forms by hand. Forms can be a nightmare in any medium. But the dream of the Internet and Web was once one of bypassing levels of hierarchy and bureaucratic lines of authority to communicate more directly with information and people. It turns out that this might have been a transitory phenomenon that is giving way to a more form-based and more automated bureaucratic future than one could ever have imagined. imgres-2

It may seem hopeless. You are increasingly forced to fill in a form to do anything. Recently, when preparing to submit a proposal, my university messaged me that before I submitted the proposal, I had to complete an exam, based on reading an online tutorial. To meet the deadline, I had to break all records in working through the tutorial and passing the exam in the nick of time to meet the proposal deadline. This is automated bureaucratic power being exercised without mussing a hair on the head of any administrator.

What can be done? You can call attention to cases when forms are being over-used or used inappropriately. Let colleagues and others know about bad forms, such as those that are not usable or user friendly. When you have an option, ask about whether participating in a particular task will require you to work with automated forms and templates. When you don’t like the expectations, and you have an option, you can refuse to participate in activities that require form mediated interaction. Also, be vocal and strategic in complaining about forms that undermine real communication with an individual or an organization. Rage against the new machine – the online forms and templates.

Please let me know or comment if you know of people thinking about these issues. You can reach me personally on William.Dutton at