I was at an event recently – I can’t really say what it was, and certainly won’t mention who was there – where the topic of confidentiality came up. It became clear in the course of the day that there was less than perfect agreement on the concept. While many of us here on the Internet pretty much have “information wants to be free” tattooed on the back of our mouse hand, confidentiality has its place. People knowing that their opinions, their identity, or both will remain secret will probably speak freely and share information in a way they might not if they knew it would be made public.

The trick, I have concluded after thinking about this unnamed event, is for everyone to understand and agree on the rules up front. Confidentiality comes in more than one flavour. Here’s my take on some of the most popular ones.

Chatham House Rule

The first rule of the Chatham House Rule: there’s only one Rule. Calling it “Rules” loses you expert points.

The second rule of the Chatham House Rule: it’s not Fight Club. Don’t confuse the two.

The Chatham House Rule was written in 1927 by the London-based organisation whose name it bears. It’s been revised a couple of times since, most recently in 2002. The best place to learn about the rule is, naturally, here.

The purpose of the Rule is to encourage free sharing of information during discussions, and to allow the ideas discussed to be used afterwards. Here’s the rule itself:

“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.”

A couple of things interest me about this. Firstly, the point of the rule is to encourage the sharing of ideas both within and beyond the discussion. The protect-identities part is a means to that end. Secondly, the Rule is not the same as “within these four walls.”

Finally, here’s an interesting and relevant snippet from the Chatham House Website:

Q. Can I ‘tweet’ while at an event under the Chatham House Rule?

A. The Rule can be used effectively on social media sites such as Twitter as long as the person tweeting or messaging reports only what was said at an event and does not identify – directly or indirectly – the speaker or another participant. This consideration should always guide the way in which event information is disseminated – online as well as offline.

Off the record

You’d need an actual journalist to provide a completely trustworthy opinion on this one, and many would probably say that nothing is ever really “off the record.”

My reading and chats with journalists though tell me that when a person says something is “off the record” they’re saying, “this information is true, you may use it as the basis for further investigation but you may not publish it.”

These Four Walls / Vegas Rules

This is pretty straightforward and is sometime what people think Chatham House Rule means (it isn’t).

Nothing that is discussed under this rule may be mentioned to anyone not present, ever.

Interestingly, “Vegas Rules” is apparently the actual name used for this rule by at least one big company. I think that’s pretty cool and is unlikely to leave anyone in any doubt about what it means.

Don’t Be A Dick

This is my favourite rule of all. If you’re having a private discussion, you’ve chosen to include some people in the discussion and exclude others. So this rule simply trusts the people you’ve chosen to invite to respect that, respect each other, and don’t do or say anything to breach that trust. It’s an online rule, mainly, and if Russell Brown didn’t coin it he certainly talks about it a lot. Be nice, respect each other and don’t be a dick.

Works for me.

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