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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Thanksgiving....and friends who have recently passed

It's 7am and I have just put the turkey into the oven. I've been cooking for days (hence the lack of any meaningful posts here at my blog). The house is quiet and I am awake. It's likely that I am the only who will be awake in my house for several hours.

In this quiet, it's easy to reflect. Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It's the day we celebrate as a nation. We celebrate the first meal of the Pilgrims after they had settled in the "new world" in Plymouth. We celebrate our families. We, hopefully, remember to be thankful. And, at least once a year, as we sit around our dinner table, we share the things we are thankful for.

Our children tend to start off being thankful for a new bike, or computer game, or iPod. The cook is thankful that the turkey (the traditional main course for Thanksgiving dinner in the US) is cooked and ready to be eaten. The Red Sox fans are thankful that their team finally won a World's Series, and the Yankee fans (consider me one) are thankful the news is focusing on other things. :-)

And each of us is thankful for our jobs, our health and our well-being.

Each year, sadly, we are thankful for having known someone who is no longer with us. Each year brings with it poignant memories of the people who have left our lives. And our thanks for having known them. And each year brings with it new people that are now helping to fill our lives. And new trials and tribulations. New joys, New challenges.

This year the things for which I am especially thankful include:
All of my column readers and my blog readers, who make this much more fun and sometimes keep me on my toes;
The wonderful people at Information Week who try and make sense out of my ramblings and turn them into a column that delivers an understandable message;
The incredible people who volunteer for and help others each day;
My best friend, Lanell, who reminds me that life is not a blog :-);
Members of law enforcement for helping us stop predators online who prey on our children, and our financial information:
The techies out there who teach us how to do that :-);
The librarians and teachers for guiding our children online and offline;
My teenangels ( and the new younger version, tweenangels;
The incredible people at Marvel for their generous donation of their characters to teach online safety, privacy and responsible surfing worldwide;
My family for letting me ignore the laundry, and sitting and watching television with them because I am "online" ;
eBay for letting me buy what I need (or think I need) any hour of the day or night;
Citibank for keeping my creditcard information secure and protecting my identity online so I can buy things on eBay;

and most of all...

To Ron Plesser, a dear friend, honored colleague and brilliant privacy lawyer, who passed away last week of a heart attack. (You can visit to see how many other people are thankful for having known him too.) Privacy law and policy will never be the same.

Ron was one of the greats. There are a few privacy lawyers (many of them now professors or running advocacy groups) that helped form privacy law and policy in the US and, in Ron's case, worldwide. Each is known for some slight piece of the puzzle. Ron was best known for his belief that commercial interests and consumer interests can co-exist, and that being responsible in the privacy arena is good for business. He represented the big players, and the revolutionary ones.

He represented AOL in the early days when privacy policy formation was crucial. He represented the Direct Marketing Assocation when they were under siege for online marketing practices. He represented Tivo, and helped frame a policy that allows us to be comfortable knowing that this little device has information about our watching habits no one should have unless they are trustworthy. He represented Geocities in the FTC matter when they were facing privacy and consumer law violations and helped them handle that without the devastating impact it could have been if any other lawyer had been representing them.

I remember when he and I were on an FTC privacy panel together. My name plate said "Parry Aftab, Cyberspace Lawyer." His said "Ron Plesser, Direct marketing Association." (He must have been speaking on their behalf.) Ron, when he took the microphone, jokingly complained that he wanted to be a "cyberspace lawyer" too. Why was I given that title and not him?

That's how it was in the early days between Ron and me. I was a much later player on the privacy law scene. I didn't "do" Washington, didn't know the key players on Capitol Hill, or the right people in the White House (at least not then). I didn't join the other privacy groups and kept to myself as a privacy lawyer.

Ron and I had a competitive relationship, but both liked and respected the other. I was flattered that Ron thought I was capable of competing in any way with him. He was a privacy giant. He had started out with Nader, had written most of the laws I was struggling to understand, and had clients...the kind who paid him when the bills went out. The kind of clients I would have killed for then. But, the FTC gave me a name plate saying "cyberspace lawyer." (I think it is because I never had a client willing to pay me to speak at an FTC workshop. :-)) And in the subtle world of privacy compliance that meant something, to me and to Ron.

Ron and I circled each other for years. We would laugh at each other's jokes and trade opinions at conferences and on roundtables and conferences. We respected each other. (I suspect that I respected Ron more than he respected me in those early years, but nonetheless....) I would go to him on hard problems for his take on an issue. His take was always unique, always practical and always made sense.

He made it look easy.

Ron was part of a big firm, Piper Marbury, but I never thought of him that way. I instead saw him always as "Ron Plesser" privacy lawyer extraordinaire :-). That got me into trouble one day. And that trouble turned Ron and me into friends from competitive lawyers.

At an FTC workshop in California, I had been asked to speak on children's privacy issues. A young woman was on the panel with me, and was identified as being from Warner Brothers. I did a substantial portion of the big media companies' children's privacy work in those days, but didn't represent Warner. Warner was always on my wish list though. (The were still separate from AOL in those days.)

After our panel was over, I approached this woman and the person wearing the Warner nametag. I hoped to be able to do work for them and began my pitch.

"Who does your kids privacy work?" I asked. He explained that Piper Marbury did. I used that as an opening to explain our specilializing in kids online privacy and how we knew more about it than Piper Marbury did. (I was a lot more arrogant and desperate for new business then. :-)) I watched everyone's faces turn red, and didn't understand why until the co-panelist turned to me and identified herself as their lawyer at Piper Marbury. (Like Ron himself at the previous conference, she was representing her client and her nameplate said "Warner Brothers" instead of her firm.) (The moral of the story is never believe a name plate at an FTC conference. :-))

My law partner, Nancy Savitt, was standing next to me at the time. She was never very proud of me when I tried to promote our work at events, but this time, she gasped audibly. Everyone did.

I gulped and figured "in for a penny, in for a pound" and tried to convince her that we did know more about kids privacy than her firm did. She silenced me with two words - "Ron Plesser."

I was so used to seeing him with clients' names on his name plate, that I didn't know that he was at Piper Marbury. I immediately conceded and left to lick my wounds. But I was worried that my rudeness and outright outrageous behavior would be unforgiveable to Ron.

So, I did what any self-respecting cowardly lawyer would do. I sent my kind, mild-mannered parnter ahead of me. I asked her to call Ron and explain.

He was in DC, and we were in San Francisco (as I recall), and only a few minutes had passed, but he already had been informed. Nancy explained whatever she could and probably fell on the same sword she usually did "You know Parry." That meant several different things that everyone in those days understood. (I think it means other things now, but let's not go there...:-))

It meant "she means well," "You know she had no self-control," "we're a little firm and need to meet our payroll," "she's more little kid than adult lawyer," and "what was she thinking!? was she even thinking at all?" (putting the best gloss on it, she was my partner afterall.)

Ron told her to have me call him.

I felt like a kid being called to the principal's office or waiting until my father got home. I dreaded making that call. I procrastinated. I did things that had been sitting waiting for me to do for years. I cleaned out my dayplanner, my file and even started a diet and exercise program. Anything to delay the inevitable. And it was an inevitable. Ron and I were on the same panels too often, called for interviews in the same articles too often and frankly, I respected him too much for me to get away without calling him.

Nancy came into my office one day, handed me Ron's number and told me to dial. I was relieved to find his voice mail. I uttered some quick apology, made a joke and hung up. But Nancy wouldn't let me off the hook so easily. I had to call him back a few hours later.

This time he answered.

I cleared my throat a few times, made a few more jokes and then faced him. I had disparaged his firm and his practice (even though i didn't know it was his at the time), tried to steal a client and had done it at an event where everyone knew everyone. I apologized and explained that had I known he was at the firm, I wouldn't ever had said the things I did.

God bless the man. He laughed. He was big enough that I was a minor annoyance, not a major problem. And others had tried and in some cases (not often) managed to poach his clients before, just as he poached the clients of others. That's what lawyers do.

I think he was genuinely hurt to hear that I had disparaged him and his practice. When he heard it wasn't him I was disparaging, he laughed. He then invited me to lunch the next time I was in DC and after the third time we had lunch told me to stop grovelling. The slight was forgotten.

A few lunches later, he agreed to sit on the advisory board of the charity I run protecting children online. A few more and he asked me if Nancy and I were interested in joining his firm. (We thanked him, but neither of us wanted to work at a big firm again.) And then, like a sword forged with fire and ice and lots of tempering, we became good friends.

Ron was a Washington insider. His advice was always valuable. But his friendship and his smile were worth far more than his view on the latest bill pending on privacy.

Ron was a good man. He was a loving husband (speaking of his wife and how the deserved the time in their lives when they could focus on each other and nothing else frequently the week before his untimely heart attack), and father (speaking about his children and how things were finally falling into line and he knew they would become wonderful adults).

And now he is gone. before I had a chance to ask him enough, or thank him enough or learn from him enough or tell him how much he will be missed...

I lost a friend and trusted colleague. The world lost a brilliant privacy leader and legal mind. Piper lost their best. We all lost a special person.

So today, at dinner, I will be thankful for having had the opportunity to know him, and learn what he taught me and laugh at his jokes and perhaps for having been taught to think before speaking and to be a bit more humble.


for Ron.

Happy Thanksgiving!



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