I often attend events that use the Chatham House Rule.

“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.”

Chatham House-by-default seems to have become a norm in certain parts of academia and civil society. Academic institutions often use it because not attributing allows for participation/insights from people who may have institutional constraints on sharing their experiences/opinions. For example, folks who work for a government entity or a corporation are often constrained in what they are able to say. Using the Chatham House Rule allows them to speak/participate.1

But for those of us who are not subject to those institutional strictures and who have often given up opportunities to remain so, Chatham-by-default can mean that our participation in these conversations is just unacknowledged (and usually unpaid) labor. If I say something useful or valuable during a conversation, and it makes it into a concrete output (like a report), the Chatham House Rule ensures that I don’t receive any credit for that outside the context of the people who were potentially in the room in the first place. If others find the idea compelling and end up repeating it, I may never get credit, making it harder to build credibility as an expert.

Relying on memory rather than formal credit also has distributional consequences because of sexism and racism. Not recording attribution is likely to have disproportionately negative effects on those who are already less likely to be recognized as having important contributions. (This phenomenon is sometimes called “he-peating” or “rewhiting.”)

Many interpretations of the Chatham House Rule produce summary documents that don’t allow for an understanding of power dynamics or the incentives of speakers. It matters who said what! If the [Big Company] lobbyist says that the problem is that not enough people trust corporations to do the right thing, a reader should weigh that comment differently than if someone who works for [Consumer Rights Group] says that. Positionality beyond affiliations is also relevant - especially as we think about underrepresentation of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people in spaces like technology policy. (We could also imagine a version of the rule that allows for some sharing of information about the background of a speaker. One difficulty could be that such information requires a sufficient number of speakers of a particular background in the room so that an identification is not immediately revealing.)

Finally, the Chatham House rule seems to operate on an implicit assumption that additional information is sufficient reward for participation in conversations, as opposed to credit for insights/perspectives. As someone who believes incredibly strongly in paying participants for their time and efforts, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with academic norms that lead to extractive knowledge creation.

The Chatham House Rule, as a default practice with no option of attribution, privileges the needs of those who are not willing to have their views be attributed over people who benefit from attribution and credit. I wish more organizers would think critically about whose participation is rewarded and encouraged by Chatham House, rather than assuming that it is good for everyone. As part of this process, organizers could directly consult participants in knowledge creation about what is useful to them - whether that’s payment, anonymity, or credit, and then endeavor to provide that.

Thank you to Jonathan Zittrain, Afsaneh Rigot, Wendy Seltzer, and some anonymous reviewers who read and provided feedback on a draft. Very meta.


  1. This is fundamentally different from safety rules that are used to protect at risk people. Across many spaces, I have never heard the Chatham House Rule used in that context.