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Win the Presidency, Lose Your E-Mail?

Among many other pressing decisions -- hiring Cabinet members, choosing a school for his daughters, picking out a puppy -- President-elect Barack Obama will have to choose whether to give up e-mail. For at least the next four years.

He wouldn't be the first to do so. The argument here is that e-mail, unlike phone calls and face-to-face contact, produces evidence that falls under public records laws, and so Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also gave up their e-mail accounts. But for Obama, this would apparently involve a major sacrifice and a dramatic departure from his routine (the NYT had an interesting look at his e-mail and BlackBerry habits in yesterday's edition).

There are good arguments to be had over whether this is such a great idea on legal and policy grounds. For example, why should a voice over Internet Protocol call be exempt from record-keeping requirements when a different stream of digital packets, an e-mail message, is not? Do we actually want our elected representatives to choose their communications systems by how much evidence they might leave of any criminal actions? Would a bit of radical transparency be such a bad thing in government?

What I'm more interested in at the moment, however, is what it would be like for any regular user of e-mail to abandon it entirely for four years. I suspect that, at first, getting this constant distraction out of my life would come as a vast relief -- the same way I enjoy unplugging when I'm on vacation. But after the first couple of weeks, it would drive me nuts. Maybe this is just my own weird tastes at work, but real-time chatter -- phone calls, instant messaging, Webcam video chats -- isn't enough. I need a form of communication that gives me a chance to think first.

How about you? How long could you go without e-mail? What would you do to compensate for its absence?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 17, 2008; 11:59 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Telecom  
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If you work for any major employer you have to assume that any corporate emails (and in some cases any use of their internet connection) is being monitored and could be used against you later. For most of us, that's not a reason to stop using it. Knowing that all your activity is being monitored just requires that you adjust your behavior.

I don't see why Obama can't continue to use his email and just be careful with it. This comment is publicly visible, too, and I don't have a problem with that.

Posted by: divestoclimb | November 17, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

There's a big difference between your email at an average major employer and your email at the White House. The general counsel at the company who is at all concerned about lawsuits has probably worked with the IT department to make it a company wide policy to delete emails older than 2 years (in many cases less depending on the company). There's nothing wrong with that under discovery laws. At the White House (whether or not you're president) there are laws requiring record retention which includes your email. That's why there was the scandal in the Bush White House about everybody using RNC email accounts instead of white house email accounts b/c the RNC emails could be deleted and not subject to the requirements. Granted that was a boring scandal.

In answer to your question Rob, the more complicated the issue, the more I like to read the argument more than talk about it. So people would still be writing me memos if I were prez and there'd still be record keeping. Of course people put more thought into memos than emails, so maybe they will leave out incriminating thoughts.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | November 17, 2008 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Is it at all possible for him to have a completely separate personal email account? I realize that work flow will be entirely different, but what about email for, say, his daughters to text him?

Posted by: ah___ | November 17, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I'm torn. On the one hand, I think public officials should be under constant public scrutiny, and far more accountable to their constituents than they are. On the other, I realize that this causes "scandals" which should never take up the time or attention of the public or the media.

No, President Obama should not have to give up e-mail, because he should be able to think through a message beforehand to prevent a feeding frenzy of scandal coverage. But he probably will give it up, because we as a culture would find something to attack.

Posted by: docmcconl | November 17, 2008 7:46 PM | Report abuse

ah___ said: I realize that work flow will be entirely different, but what about email for, say, his daughters to text him?

Unless I'm mistaken, I'm pretty sure that his daughters will be able to walk over to any convenient secret service agent and ask them to pass along a message to daddy. The message will probably be delivered faster than even a 12 year old can text :-D

Posted by: Annorax | November 18, 2008 12:56 AM | Report abuse

I think going without e-mail would be a real hardship, and if it made him less effective, I think it is a bad idea.

Evidence: Any president's e-mail should be protected from casual disclosure similar to his personal papers. I don't know how to deal with the issue of a possible investigation; should e-mails be obtained by subpoena?

One objective of e-mail is time shifting. I can't help thinking that the people around him can do the time shifting for him. Incoming: someone wants to give the President a message, an aide accepts and gives it to the President when he has a chance to read it. Outgoing: an aide gives a message to someone when the President says it, independent of when the receiver can read it.

Since he is used to e-mail, why can't they set up something where:
1) his Blackberry only receives e-mail from specific addresses, and it's encrypted with a 512-bit key.
2) when he sends an e-mail it really says, "Click here to view a message from the president.", and the end user is sent to a web page with an encrypted Flash client to display the message. Therefore, the president never really sends e-mail; the message is still on his server, and can't be saved or forwarded (by the receiver).

Posted by: locutus63 | November 18, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse

This is a non-issue. The rule of thumb holds true for the President as much as anyone else... if you don't want something to come back to haunt you, don't say it and don't write it down! You can't be persecuted (or prosecuted) if you keep everything "above board".

Posted by: CoffeeNow | November 18, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I have work email and personal email, I try to keep them separate, there is no reason that Obama can't do the same. As President, he will have to have a trusted person read all of his email, personal or otherwise, but i see no reason why he should stop his personal email as long as he's not using it to do the "people's business". Then again, as Prez, everything he does is the people's business, could be hard to separate.

Posted by: dannofels | November 18, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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