June 24, 2024

Off-the-record Conferences

In writing about the Harvard Speedbump conference, I noted that its organizers declared it to be off the record, so that statements made or positions expressed at the conference would not be attributed publicly to any particular person or organization. JD Lasica asks, quite reasonably, why this was done: “Can someone explain to me why a conference needs to be ‘off the record’ in order for people to exchange ideas freely? What kind of society are we living in?”

This is the second off-the-record conference I have been to in my twenty years as a researcher. The first was a long-ago conference on parallel computing. Why that one was off the record was a mystery to me then, and it still is now. Nobody there had anything controversial to say, and no participant was important enough that anyone outside a small research community would even care what was said.

As to the recent Speedbump conference, I can at least understand the motivation for putting it off the record. Some of the participants, like Cary Sherman from RIAA and Fritz Attaway from MPAA, would be understood as speaking for their organizations; and the hope was that such people might depart from their talking points and speak more freely if they knew their statements wouldn’t leave that room.

Overall, there was less posturing at this meeting than one usually sees at similar meetings. My guess is that this wasn’t because of the off-the-record rule, but just because some time has passed in the copyright wars and cooler heads are starting to prevail. Nobody at the meeting took a position that really surprised me.

As far as I could tell, there were only two or three brief exchanges that would not have happened in an on-the-record meeting. These were discussions of various deals that either might be made between different entities, or that one entity had quietly offered to another in the past. For me, these discussions were less interesting than the rest of the meeting: clearly no deal could be made in a room with thirty bystanders, and the deals that were discussed were of the sort that savvy observers of the situation might have predicted anyway.

In retrospect, it looks to me like the conference needn’t have been off the record. We could just as easily have followed the rule used in at least one other meeting I have attended, with everything on the record by default, but speakers allowed to place specific statements off the record.

To some extent, the off-the-record rule at the conference was a consequence of blogging. In pre-blog days, this issue could have been handled by not inviting any reporters to the meeting. Nowadays, at any decent-sized meeting, odds are good that several of the participants have blogs; and odds are also good that somebody will blog the meeting in real time. On the whole this is a wonderful thing; nobody has the time or money to go to every interesting conference.

I have learned a lot from bloggers’ conference reports. It would be a shame to lose them because people are afraid of being quoted.

[My plan still calls for one more post on the substance of the conference, as promised yessterday.]


  1. For a skilled company, informal events are really no different than formal events. They are useful for leaking information to gauge reaction or to establish a tone for other sets of negotiations or interactions.

    The companies involved really have no expectation that anyone will keep their mouth shut in private, and the information will make its way through backchannels. They even rely on it.

    Especially in tech circles, these types of discussions (whether they are at a bar or in a conference room) are typically used to take advantage of the bluntness of the techies or the naivete of the “sucker at the table”.

  2. “The general justification for the rule was that the attendees wanted to speak frankly about their corporate business plans or histories and would get in trouble somehow with their employers if this information ended up being publicized.”

    No doubt this is correct. The strange thing is that the companies don’t mind so much that the information gets out into the community informally, but that it doesn’t get out in a way which the company has to acknowledge. It’s one thing if everyone knows that a project was a huge failure but the company kept it afloat because the manager had connections on the board; but it’s another for a corporate executive to say this on the record.

    Why does it make a difference? The real reason, I think, is not because the company made a mistake or did something harmful or stupid, because then the company wouldn’t allow the information to come out at all, and employees who leaked it even to a small circle would get in trouble. The reason is some oddity in our society and the way we deal with these situations.

    For some reason, we all pretend to look the other way when this information comes out informally. But then when it comes out in a formal and accountable manner, we consider it a shocking scandal. It reflects very badly on the company if some mismanagement is officially recognized, but as long as the company can plausibly deny it then it doesn’t matter.

    I think and hope that in the future we will look back on this differentiation with the same combination of bemusement and contempt that we have today for how the 20th century press helped cover up JFK’s indiscretions or FDR’s handicap. Presidents were seen as godlike beings, and the people weren’t mature enough to handle the notion that their leaders had imperfections. Today these kinds of things are much more open and people accept that they happen. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Clinton was a philanderer but in the end he was a reasonably successful president.

    Similarly in the future we will all know and understand that companies make mistakes and that decisions are often made based on internal politics. We will be sophisticated enough to understand that such imperfections are an inherent part of any human institution. Companies will no longer need to work so hard to maintain deniability of their minor scandals; they will admit them and move on, and society won’t pretend to be shocked, shocked that a corporation was run by human beings rather than angels.

    Once we grow up a little bit more and become brave enough to live in the real world, unprotected by childish fantasies of human perfection which are remnants of previous ages, then we won’t need to have off the record conferences.

  3. I just got back from the Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop,
    which is an off-the-record conference. Although I didn’t
    discuss it with attendees, I felt strange about this after
    my experience criticizing CPTWG and its subgroups over
    their press policies. (On the other hand, the public has
    a much more obvious interest in knowing what is said at
    CPTWG and its subgroups than in knowing what is said at

    What surprised me is that almost all attendees at AMW were
    very attached to the off-the-record tradition and seemed to
    have a very high level of anxiety about the possibility that
    it might be eroded or disrespected by somebody. I know that
    this fit uneasily with the sentiments of particularly avid
    bloggers (and even at the conference, people discussed
    technologies they were using or considering using that fit
    poorly with the off-the-record rule).

    I only saw one thing at Asilomar that I’m sure wouldn’t have
    happened if it had been on the record, although people did
    make a series of jokes that would have been toned down or
    omitted in that case. The general justification for the rule
    was that the attendees wanted to speak frankly about their
    corporate business plans or histories and would get in trouble
    somehow with their employers if this information ended up
    being publicized.

    This is an odd contrast with CPTWG’s policy. At CPTWG meetings,
    a lawyer always gives an “antitrust benediction” at the beginning
    cautioning all attendees never to say anything that is confidential
    or could not be “contemporaneously” reported in a newspaper. This
    is frequently followed immediately by an announcement that newspaper
    reporters are not permitted in the room. Hmmmm…

    I don’t think I’ve had any experience so far that makes me feel
    that off-the-record is generally a desirable policy; nor do I
    have a theory about exactly what would make it one.

  4. “but that they want to be able to repudiate any statements that they may have made”

    Well, close. As in the cliche “If you ever tell anyone I said this, I’ll deny it.”

    But in cypherpunk terms, it’s not quite “repudiation” so much as they *don’t* want to put their reputation-capital behind the statements because that capital is tied up in a large set of interlinking contracts.

    I don’t think the cypherpunk thought has the right vocabulary for this, since it doesn’t deal well with concepts of what one “says in public” vs “says in private”.

    One can try to phrase it in those terms, but it’s like trying to describe objects using pidgin – the basic vocabulary is very small and concrete and not designed for it.

  5. It sounds like what you are saying, Seth, to put it into crypto terms, is that it’s not so much that they want to keep the information that was exchanged secret; but that they want to be able to repudiate any statements that they may have made. They don’t want to be bound by what they say. And the simplest way to achieve this is to not let anyone quote them. An anonymous claim about what was said might be okay because it would lack credibility and so would not impede repudiability.

  6. While it may be that nothing happened at the conference that needs to be off the record, I can sympathize with the concept that the some participants didn’t want to be playing the journalist “GOTCHA” game.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with “bloggers”, despite the appeal of the idea of it’s-a-New-Era-everyone’s-a-reporter-now.

    Rather, I believe the idea is more aimed that each side agrees not to try to “score points” off the other, so they can negotiate and not posture, rather than a danger of errant bloggers.

    Of course, there’s no way to enforce this, but it’s really not about anonymous leaks. Instead, anyone who wants to break the deal really has to put their name on it, by putting their reputation behind the break (for “point-scoring”).

    I’ve gotten burned on this myself (regarding acceding to a failed attempt to make peace with Mike Godwin), and it’s more about the social uses of the information than a raw account.

  7. Sigh. Just in case there’s any doubt, I believe that people should keep their promises. And I will keep my promise and comply with the off-the-record rule for the conference.

    I don’t think it’s precisely right to say that filesharing infringers are breaking their promises. They’re breaking the law, but it might be that they oppose that aspect of the law and have never personally promised to obey it.

    I’m certainly not saying that opposition to a law always justifies disobeying it. What I am saying is that whether to obey a law with which you disagree is a different moral question than whether to keep a promise you have made.

  8. It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone posted detailed “he said / she said” descriptions of everything that happened at the meeting – anonymously.

    Of course, this would be wrong, because each participant agreed to keep the details confidential and this would be a violation of their promise. But some people have an ideological belief that information should be shared (at least, that is how they excuse their participation in file sharing activities even when the artists have begged them to stop), and they might feel that off-the-record restrictions are immoral and hence their agreements are not binding.