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Research in Motion, the company that owns BlackBerry, recently released the new Blackberry Storm, a touchscreen device that it hopes will not only attract business customers, but also consumers. The Storm is positioned as an answer to Apple’s iPhone. In the fight for celebrity endorsements, BlackBerry may have perhaps the best unofficial celebrity endorsement in the history of endorsements–Barack Obama. It’s no secret that Obama is tethered to his BlackBerry and, despite his aids’ entreaties, he is resisting giving it up before he takes office. During the campaign, he was seen using it, and often spoke highly of the black, palm-sized device. Obama recently stated that for him to relinquish the device, “[t]hey’re going to pry it out of my hands.”
According to marketing experts, Obama is a perfect pitchman because he’s popular, constantly in the news, and speaks frequently about using the product. These experts estimate that an Obama endorsement of the BlackBerry could go for no less than $25 million, and maybe as much as $50 million. BlackBerry didn’t pay Obama for mentioning the device to reporters and the media, but the payout for a traditional celebrity plug with the most A-list of A-list celebrities (Obama would almost certainly fall into this category) would cost anywhere from $10 to 15 million dollars. Using a BlackBerry likely helped Obama with his image because it showed that he, like the rest of us, enjoys staying connected with family and friends. However, assuming that Obama would be willing to endorse BlackBerry products for money, he would be prohibited from doing so while holding office because of various legal and ethical concerns.
What’s the best BlackBerry can hope for while Obama’s in office? That Obama defies his aids’ advice and continues to use his BlackBery for limited purposes, such as personal emails and nonsensitive matters. Obama’s aids have advised him to give up his BlackBerry when he takes office because of the prodigious paper trail that email leaves behind. Actually, he has been advised not to send emails during his presidency at all due to security concerns and his own personal legal protection. In terms of those personal legal issues, some are concerned that Obama’s emails may fall within the disclosure provisions of The Freedom of Information Act and other similar reporting requirements.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist with the California First Amendment Coalition, argues that whether communications to or from President Obama are subject to disclosure depends not on the type of device used to send them, but rather, on the status of the communications. Communications that are either personal (e.g., from Michelle to President Obama) or that are exempt from FOIA, perhaps because they are privileged, need not be disclosed irrespective of the medium in which they are carried. In essence, Scheer argues, if a record must be disclosed, the type of device from which it was sent or received matters not. Sheer also notes that, security concerns aside, only two benefits would accrue vis-a-vis public disclosure if the President did not use a BlackBery: 1) a smaller paper trail would exist, and 2) his aids would likely find it easier to sift through paper records to remove embarrassing content.
Scheer concludes that Obama should refuse to give up his BlackBerry for all communications going forward that do not involve highly sensitive matters, and that Obama should make all communications received or transmitted from the BlackBerry public. He argues that making all BlackBerry communications public would be consistent with Obama’s promises for an open administration. I, too, think Obama should continue to use his BlackBerry for matters that are not sensitive, but I disagree that he should make all BlackBerry communications public. The public is best served by a President who can communicate and receive information freely, one whose communications are not systematically filtered by a group of advisers and aids. The BlackBerry not only provides a direct link to family, friends, and advisers, but will also help keep Obama from becoming cloistered by his inner circle. Moreover, the BlackBerry also provides unfiltered access to news and other content online. Assuming that security and legal concerns can be overcome, Obama should use his BlackBerry to the fullest extent he can.
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