Silence by agreement

19 September 2005

Search Engine Watch has reported on the apparently bizarre idea of Google inviting media and bloggers to an event and then making the whole thing "off the record". Steve Rubel asked why invite them at all?

It's a fair point. However, there are times when not reporting what people, at least directly, can be useful. However, a lot depends on what off the record means in this instance. There are four distinct flavours that I can think of, ranging from using quotes without directly naming the person through to just keeping something secret. Meetings held under the Chatham House Rule can be useful to hacks because people speak more freely than if they know they will be quoted and named. If you just need a steer on what is going on and aim to back such a story with direct quotes from elsewhere, then this can work fine. You need to be careful about using this kind of thing directly anyway as people get careless under these conditions and say stuff freely that is just plain wrong. Mind you, that can happen even if they know they are on the record.

What is more bizarre than Google's off-the-record conference is something that older IT companies frequently inflict on hacks: the non-disclosure agreement (NDA). A favourite of Microsoft in particular, the NDA is often used to maintain compliance with an embargo. The only trouble is that if you read them, they last indefinitely not until a particular date, which makes the information technically even more useless than an agreed "off the record". That's the point where you have to wonder why anyone agrees to them.