How the code of secrecy among Davos attendees works

A no names zone.
A no names zone.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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Judged by the hundreds of media in attendance and the images broadcast globally from Davos this week, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting of top business and political leaders is an open affair.

But the ground rule for the proceedings actually requires that aspects be kept secret. Attendees must “observe the Chatham House Rule in all situations,” according to a formal code of conduct (pdf) for the conference. The Chatham House Rule, in turn, says that “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.”

In other words, it’s forbidden to report or tell others who said what during this week’s event. The WEF code of conduct threatens “cancellation of your participation in the Annual Meeting” for anyone who breaches it.

There are a significant number of sessions in the main conference halls at Davos that are explicitly on the record, such as one this morning called “The New Digital Context” with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and other tech executives. And participants can always waive the rule and choose to make their comments public.

That might not mean much to Davos critics who find the whole thing too clubby and secretive. But the WEF organizers believe the Chatham House Rule allows for more frank, productive conversation instead of having speakers hedge their views out of caution. ”The utility of it is that it gives people whose lives, business positions, or political positions are very conscribed the opportunity to have open conversations,” says Adrian Monck, managing director for communications at WEF.

(Here’s an example of a Davos participant attempting to adhere to the rule at last year’s meeting.)

The actual Chatham House is an international affairs think tank in London. The rule originated there in 1927 and was modified in 1992 and 2002. The Chatham House organization says it generally considers proceedings on the record unless a speaker requests the rule be applied. In cases where additional discretion is requested, discussion can be off the record, which generally means that not just the names of the speakers but the substance of the discussion can’t be reported.

Chatham House’s website has some helpful clarifications about the rule—for instance, it doesn’t prevent you from reporting what you yourself said. And there’s even a section on Twitter:

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.

Nevertheless, as the events in Davos officially kick off, it’s unclear just how well the increasingly pervasive tell-all ethos of social media will mesh with the hush-hush Chatham House Rule. Keep your eyes out for some interesting tweets this week.