BEING "ON THE RECORD" - April 2008


On Saturday, April 26, I watched a TV program hosted by Tim Russert. He and the commentators were reflecting on the broader implications of how an off-the-record comment by Senator Obama at a San Francisco speech could achieve worldwide exposure in a relatively short time. Their conclusion is that, at this time and irreversibly going forward, “everything is on the record.” I would add one other phrase as well: “Everything that is on the record is likely to stay on the record permanently.”

The combination of cell phone cameras, the ability to upload digital images to web sites, and the broad reach of user-generated content on sites like YouTube and Facebook mean that all of us have the potential to live our entire lives out in the open, not unlike the lead character played by Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show” a few years back. Scott McNealy, the Chairman of Sun Microsystems, made the comment almost a decade ago that, with the Internet, there is no privacy and all of us need to get over it. He’s right.

What does that mean? I have always operated on the assumption that when I was CEO of Pitney Bowes, I am always playing the role of company leader even in my private life. Everything I say can be captured and broadly reported, and my conduct will reflect well or badly on the Company no matter where I am. I particularly notice this when I am going into the doughnut shop in my town at 6:30 am on a Saturday. Whatever I say to an acquaintance is public, whether I like it to be or not. Government officials in this country are in public 100% of the time, whether they want to be or not. Leaders of any large organization are in public at all times.

If something is public, it also generally has the ability to be permanently-recorded. As Senators Clinton, Obama, and McCain are discovering, whatever they have done in their lives never disappears. As a society, we need to ask ourselves whether the preoccupation with mistakes political candidates and other government officials have made years or even decades before discourages highly-qualified individuals from taking on public service. Likewise, for all of us, whatever we do or create is likely to be permanently recorded somewhere if someone had the will or ability to record it when it happened.

Our children need to understand that the silliness of whatever they posted on Facebook or some other web site will be with them at age 30, 40, 60, or even 80. How a future employer, peer, marriage partner, child, or even grandchild will understand their behaviors and what’s recorded about them is beyond control or prediction. We are moving into uncharted territory for which we are unprepared. In a blog entitled Myspace and Facebook = The New Background Check talks about new methods, via online social networks, which allow employers to screen potential candidates for hire. Further advising individuals to be aware of the information that they are posting on the internet that can then be accessed by anyone and can have negative implications on how you are perceived professionally.

All of us need the freedom to make silly or stupid mistakes at some points in our lives to learn how to make decisions as we get older. My daughter and I are big fans of the TV show Friends. In one episode, two of the male characters, Chandler and Ross, are looking back at a video taken of one of their conversations in the late 1980’s. They are dressed in the hot fashion of the times, the look popularized by the TV show Miami Vice

During the conversation, they are looking at clothes they used to wear even earlier and comment on how silly they “used to dress.” The implications of this episode are that we will have many more contemporaneous records of our silliest behaviors, and we will not be able to judge at the time how silly they will look years later.

We implicitly recognize that certain embarrassing behaviors need to be expunged from public records, such as arrests, and we are very careful to prevent non-serious criminal convictions from affecting our ability to get employment. I am deeply concerned about large portions of our society that cannot vote or hold many types of employment because they committed a non-serious crime as a young person, even if they have lived an exemplary life for a very long time since. I also am deeply concerned that, even if public records do not reflect what happened to someone as a young person, the private records will be ample and definitive for someone wanting to bypass restrictions on what is available in public records. In the online Washington Post article entitled “Every Click You Make”, sheds light on the debate concerning privacy issues on the internet, or lack thereof.

I do not have the answers to these difficult questions, but I know that we need to adjust our thinking about privacy, about how information is collected, but, most important of all, how it is used and evaluated years later. We need to teach our children enduring values, and to think about the future implications of what they are doing today. We have not yet come to terms with what Tim Russert and his colleagues correctly concluded.