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Blackmail Should Be Illegal (thezvi.wordpress.com)
92 points by apsec112 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 116 comments





The argument against blackmail that rings most true for me is that if you want transparency and accountability for politicians, blackmail should remain illegal.

In a society where blackmail is fully legal, the incentive for journalists, politicians and corporations align fully against the public.

Consider: A politician is corrupt. He's shady and gaining huge personal wealth through corruption. Or a corporation is doing business practices in secret that would probably cause widespread concern among the public. In a society where blackmail is illegal, a journalist that discovers this is fully incentivized to publish the information. If he tries to blackmail the politician or corporation, then he will if be prosecuted if it's discovered.

OTOH, lets say blackmail is legal. Now the journalist has to balance serving the public interest through publishing with the now fully safe and legal option of simply threatening the politician or corporation to cut them in if they keep quiet, knowing also that since this is legal even if it's discovered they are off scott free.

In other words, legal blackmail means it's fully legal to "cut in" someone who discovers a shady practice on part of the proceeds.

I don't see any way in which legal blackmail doesn't keep the public less informed and more in the dark. The incentives for keeping secrets from the public are far higher in a world where blackmail is legal.


> In other words, legal blackmail means it's fully legal to "cut in" someone who discovers a shady practice on part of the proceeds.

This isn't true. Cutting someone in is something that the hypothetical corrupt politician does. Blackmail is something the hypothetical journalist does. Either can be criminalized without regard to the legal treatment of the other.

And in fact, blackmail is a crime right now, and paying blackmail isn't a crime right now. There's no reason you couldn't reverse those two statuses.

> I don't see any way in which legal blackmail doesn't keep the public less informed and more in the dark.

Scott Sumner has been writing recently about how the criminalization of blackmail is good because, if blackmail were legal, the public would be kept more informed and less in the dark. (And blackmail usually involves things like homosexual or adulterous behavior that he feels the public shouldn't know about.) I tend to agree with you on this point; blackmail is an act of concealment and legalizing it should produce more, not less, concealment.


> blackmail is an act of concealment and legalizing it should produce more, not less, concealment.

And therein lies the debate, some view instead view blackmail as an act of coercion and legalizing it should produce more, not less, coercion.

After all, you can blackmail someone to take an action when they otherwise wouldn't.


What do you mean "instead"? More concealment (via blackmail) obviously means more coercion (in the sense relevant to blackmail), because the concealment only occurs if the coercion is acceded to. They can only go up or down together. But I was commenting on an implicit debate between someone who believes that legal blackmail will lead to more concealment, and someone else who believes blackmail will lead to less concealment.

This is a good argument, but isn't privacy all about keeping secrets from the public?

Incentives are tricky and I'm not sure we can clearly distinguish between "good" privacy and "bad" privacy. There are clear-cut cases but also a lot of grey.

But I guess that's why it's better to avoid incentives and hope for good judgement.


> But I guess that's why it's better to avoid incentives and hope for good judgement.

You don’t like incentives because they’re too grey, yet relying on “good judgement” is clear cut? I have to disagree. Even if incentives are murky, untangling them is way easier to get consensus on than “good judgement”.


On second thought, I'm not sure they're opposing alternatives. "How will this look in court" is a combination of incentives and judgement. It seems hard to simplify.

I'm more wary of automatic incentives that are more easily gamed.


There is a strong urge in democratic society, which I believe isn't wrong or incorrect in itself, to legislate the shared ethics of that society -- that is, to outlaw that which is commonly believed to be morally wrong. There are two problems that are encountered in this pursuit:

1) Not everyone shares the same philosophy, thus not everyone shares the same ethics. Where philosophical beliefs differ, there will be clashes over what ethics ought to govern legislation.

2) When writing law, what is being outlawed has to (a) not contradict the constitution(s) governing the land, and (b) be well-defined enough to be enforced.

A lot of the discussion around outlawing blackmail centers on (2)(b) - defining terms. It's surprisingly difficult to do, to the point that a lot of things that are commonly believed to be morally wrong can't be legislated. (2)(a) is why personal freedoms/liberties, and to what extent government should be limited, must both be written into a constitution if they are to exist and be respected by the government/courts for a very long time to come.

Regarding (1), in a democratic nation, the prevailing worldview/philosophy is ultimately what determines what the moral fabric, and consequently the legal climate, of a country will be like. Of course religion (or lack thereof) will factor into this, since it strongly informs ethics -- there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, the US constitution explicitly allows the legislation -> ethics -> philosophy causal chain to arise out of any worldview, when it states that there cannot be a "religious test" for elected officials.


I can't disagree more. Legislation exists only because of ethics. To discuss legislation without ethics is to talk about nothing at all.

If you want to write a full ethics-agnostic law system, I think you'll find it won't actually help solve the problems of a society that exists in the real world.

Edit: For example, try to explain why "killing" is illegal in most countries, when some people believe that humans are just electro-chemical computers inside a meat-and-water-sack. Is a human really different than an ant, at the end of the day? If only we had a system to guide our laws that would help us function as a society... Maybe with some shared guidelines about why things are done... we could call it "ethics" perhaps.


Killing people is illegal because it reduces the number of taxpayers. If ants paid taxes they'd be protected too. Killing people who don't pay taxes isn't okay because we'd rather make them pay than put them to death.

I'm joking, obviously, but I think there needs to be a separation between law and ethics because they serve different purposes. For example, I think all personal drug use is ethical, but some drugs become a problem when used on a societal scale.

Edit: And conversely, I think being pointlessly mean to people is unethical, but it's not something that can or should be legislated.


>Killing people is illegal because it reduces the number of taxpayers.

Hacker News intellectuals. Despite old people being a net drain on the system we don't kill them.


I didn't downvote you, but you clearly didn't make it to the second paragraph. I was (partially) trying to poke fun at those people.

> I can't disagree more. Legislation exists only because of ethics. To discuss legislation without ethics is to talk about nothing at all.

I think you misread. Your point agrees with mine.


The biggest problem with blackmail and extortion is no two people seem to agree on exactly what they are and are not.

I use these definitions:

To blackmail is to threaten to do something otherwise legal (usually divulge information) unless you are paid.

To extort is to threaten to do something otherwise illegal unless you are paid.

Blackmail is one of those odd two-rights-make-a-wrong matters like prostitution or insider trading, and it's tough for a lot of people to square the corresponding laws with their own morals.

Having been blackmailed before (as in 18 USC §873 Blackmail) I find most people's attitudes on the matter are heavily influenced by their personal histories with blackmail (or lack of histories) and subject to change.


I once was called by a collection agent for state taxes (private company contracted by the state). While I knew my taxes had been paid, I was indeed delinquent in FILING my taxes, and apparently they hadn't connected the taxes paid on my W-2s with the income on my W-2s (?!).

According to the agent if I didn't give him the info from my checking account while I was on the phone, he'd hit the button and start garnishing my wages, freezing my credit, etc. He refused my every effort to say I needed to check my balances, etc and get back to him. I was living paycheck to paycheck at the time. This was a very real threat - that it would all work out was NOT the same as not being a problem.

Yet - this was entirely legal (AFAIK(. He was lying - he didn't have the authority to do those things - but he could make the threats. He put me in such a panic that I was calling the Tax agency hourly, leaving messages and faxing details. By the time I got through to a manager that could tell me my status she responded to my greeting with "Oh yes, I know who you are Mr. [REDACTED]".

A terrible experience all around. It was a threat to induce action, but neither extortion nor blackmail.


> A terrible experience all around. It was a threat to induce action, but neither extortion nor blackmail.

Pretty sure that would be illegal under, for example, German law (§ 240 StGB, Nötigung); delivering a threat in order to have you do something (or not do something) that, when implemented, would create an [severe] disadvantage, is punishable even if you could not actually implement the threat (like the guy in your story).


A private company demanded your financial info and made false threats? You might have trouble proving it in court, but there's got to be something illegal in there. Threatening to do something that they can't legally do, at the very least.

This is even worse because has the same bones as a well known telephone scam.

There's lots of misinformation here about the definition of blackmail

Blackmail is the threat of an action _unrelated to an existing right_.

A good case is Autumn Jackson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autumn_Jackson. It was not blackmail for her mother to request $2k/month in child support in exchange for silence, because she had a right to child support. But it was illegal for her to request $40M, because that was unrelated to child support.

Another example: you can threaten a restaurant with a bad review unless you receive a refund for a bad meal. You can't threaten a restaurant with a bad review unless they give you $1K.


$40M broken into monthly payments for ~18 years isn't outside the bounds of what some really rich people pay for child support. A quick google check found child support in the range of 100k/month for some rich individuals, which works out to a little over $20M for 18 years. Of by a factor of 2 doesn't seem that bad. Given Cosby was making money in the range of millions a year, $100k child support does not seem too extreme a reach.

It seems weird that a demand for money per month for as long as their was under 18 could potentially be blackmail if the one the demand is made of is too poor. What if someone demands $2k/month child support for someone who, per the formula the court would currently use for child support, only owes $200 a month. Is asking for 10 times the required child support considered unrelated? Going to the other example, that would be like asking for $1K when your bill (and thus refund) was $100.

I think this is just another case of what law really comes down to for most people is how good a lawyer you can afford. The more expensive lawyers generally can make better arguments and get you out of more trouble (or at least get a much lighter sentence). Also, there is a difference between what is legally blackmail (depends upon location), what is morally blackmail (depends upon moral system), and what we linguistically call blackmail (probably more complicated than the previous two combined).


Like any discontinuity, some area of the continuous space is close by. And people can spend time defining exactly where it lies

That said most of the continuous space is not close here. There's broad agreement that people can threaten to leave a room if someone continues shouting at them. But that people shouldn't be allowed to threaten to post explicit photos of someone if they refuse to sleep with them.


Say my phone catches fire in my pocket and I get some great video.

1) I contact Giant Corp. and say hey, if you don't pay me for this video I'm going to release it tomorrow.

2) I contact Giant Corp. and say hey, this video is going public tomorrow. I'm offering rights for sale to anyone who wants its.

It is effectively the exact same thing but you might get dragged out of your home in the middle of the night for the first one. Those laws are likely unconstitutional. What about threatening to sue a company unless they meet the terms of their contract? That is standard affair but no one would call that blackmail.

Blackmail laws seem like disturbing the peace laws. You are guilty if you piss enough people off without committing a real crime.


> To blackmail is to threaten to do something otherwise legal (usually divulge information) unless you are paid.

So, doing research on a politician, and discovering that they were a member of the KKK, and offering to keep mum for $50,000 (Because you hate them, and want to damage their career, but you have a price) is blackmail.

But doing research on a politician, and discovering that they were a member of the KKK, and going public with it (Because you hate them, and you want to damage their career), is not blackmail.

Why is one illegal, but the other one isn't? The personal harm (To the politician) is the same. Is there a social harm that I'm missing?

Or, suppose you're a customer at a restaurant. You saw the waiter spit in your food. You ask the manager to comp you your meal, or you're going to post a nasty Yelp review. (Scale this up to any sort of business transaction that you want, including multi-million dollar disputes.) Is this blackmail?

Or, suppose you're working in unsafe conditions, and you tell your boss that unless conditions improve, you're going to call OSHA. Is this blackmail? What if you'll not call OSHA if he fixes the unsafe conditions, and also gives you next Monday off? Is that now blackmail?

Or, suppose you're doing research on a company you want to invest in. You discover that their prospects are crap, and you short them, and make money. That's not blackmail. But, apparently, threatening to tell the public that their prospects are crap, and that everyone should short them, is.

There are no straight answers to the problem... Which is why I think people only view blackmail poorly when they feel something unfair happens because of it.

Getting a promotion because you blackmailed your boss? People find this incredibly offensive. Promotions should be fair!

Getting money, because you're blackmailing a politician? People also find this incredibly offensive. Why are you getting money for 'nothing'.

Getting a safe working environment, because you threatened to report your boss to a regulator? Oh, that's perfectly fine!

The reaction people have to blackmail has little to do with the act of blackmail itself - and everything to do with the 'unfair' nature of the payoff.


> Why is one illegal, but the other one isn't? The personal harm (To the politician) is the same. Is there a social harm that I'm missing?

I'd say yea, this two party model of 'victim' and blackmailer leaves out a third party, the person or entity that would be otherwise informed. I put victim in scare quotes here because the party being harmed is really others.

Yelp: is blackmail, because other customers are denied information you'd otherwise provide.

osha: blackmail for the Monday off, because other employees aren't getting Monday off; and maaaybe because osha would like to fine your employer?

shorting: other shareholders would like that information, and are harmed without their knowledge by the spend. profiting by telling everyone that truth, however, falls in line

The profit motive of the blackmailer is offensive, but there is also societal harm.


If we're going to blame blackmailers on creating societal harm, by virtue of not revealing information (relevant to third parties), why don't we mandate this sort of information disclosure in other contexts? Learn a secret? You're harming society, by not shouting it from the rooftops, to anyone who will hear.

> shorting: other shareholders would like that information, and are harmed without their knowledge by the spend. profiting by telling everyone that truth, however, falls in line

What about profiting by telling the highest bidder the truth? If there's a social harm from not releasing financial research on a company, why do we even allow it to be sold for profit?

> osha: blackmail for the Monday off, because other employees aren't getting Monday off?

So it does seem to come down to the 'fairness' litmus test?

I wish that life were fair, but it doesn't seem to be a metric that our economy, or the law cares much about.


> The personal harm (To the politician) is the same.

Strictly less in the case of blackmail, since otherwise they'd turn down the blackmail.

> Is there a social harm that I'm missing?

Yes, concealing adverse information about public figures, particularly public officials, is a social harm promoted by legalized blackmail.

(For non-public figures and non-public-interest adverse facts, the tort of invasion of privacy or publication of private information applies even with blackmail being illegal, and provides a stronger backstop against the individual harms than the privilege of having to pay off those who would otherwise drag your name through the mud.)


> Yes, concealing adverse information about public figures, particularly public officials, is a social harm promoted by legalized blackmail.

I'd say that argument only holds water if you're going beyond simply criminalizing blackmail and actually saying that there is a legal obligation to report any such information, such that agreeing not to reveal the information for a price means failing in that duty (assuming you keep to the agreement). In that case blackmail is just a special case of soliciting a bribe. However, the idea that arbitrary private citizens are obligated to publish any and all damaging information they might obtain about a public figure seems like a rather hard sell.


The incentive structure works without a mandate, because there is a market for public interest information (both via news media and interested parties). Criminalizing blackmail negated a countervailing incentive, but that doesn't make it necessary to criminalize non-reporting generally to create an incentive to report.

I'm not interested in "incentives". The purpose of law is justice, not social engineering. When lawmakers play at social engineering they make the law unjust.

If concealing information about public figures results in "social harm" then that "social harm" is exactly the same regardless of whether the information is concealed for the sake of profit. When someone has been harmed by another person's actions the offender has a duty to make the victim(s) whole. The offender's motive for causing the harm is irrelevant.

(I'm glossing over the distinction between "social harm" and the actual harm which would be necessary to justify responding with force, but that's a topic for another day.)


> 'm not interested in "incentives". The purpose of law is justice, not social engineering.

The purpose of law has always been social engineering. Various concepts of justice may either provide the desired outcome toward which that engineering is directed, and appeal to some concepts of justice may be an integral component of how law seeks to acheive the outcome to which it is directed, but it is all, invariably, social engineering.


The news media won't reward me anything but a pat on the head for revealing a politician's unsavory history, and as for interested parties paying for it... The politician in question is 100% an interested party.

> The news media won't reward me anything but a pat on the head for revealing a politician's unsavory history

The news media rewards people for that all the time; now, mostly, those are people who've become media employees first, but they definitely exist.

> as for interested parties paying for it... The politician in question is 100% an interested party.

Yes, but so are their (actual and potential) opponents.


Certainly bribery should be illegal and also attempts at bribery should be made public. Don't you think? Certainly I think it's highly concerning when politicians suggest bribery should be legal.

There is an heuristic, in that do all the people harmed by the problem benefit from the exchange?

If they do, than it's not blackmail.


> To blackmail is to threaten to do something otherwise legal (usually divulge information) unless you are paid.

I would slightly edit that to:

> To blackmail is to threaten to do something otherwise legal (usually divulge information) with the intent of forcing someone to perform a certain action that they would otherwise not want to perform

For instance, you can threaten to spill the beans on a perfectly benign secret about your coworker unless they pass on a great promotion they were given and that you coveted


"I'm going to quit unless you pay me more."

Why doesn't that meet your definition? I'm threatening to do something legal (quit) unless you do something you don't want to (pay more money).

I'm confused.


What's wrong with the Wikipedia definition?

> Blackmail is an act of coercion using the threat of revealing or publicizing either substantially true or false, and often damaging, information about a person, to the public, family members, or associates unless certain demands are met. It may involve using threats of physical, mental or emotional harm, or of criminal prosecution, against the victim or someone close to the victim


Ok, but then how is it not extortion to demand a raise or else you'll quit?

It’s quite simple, really: since you’re not a slave owner, i don’t belong to you, so the “threat” to quit can’t possibly be legally qualified as a threat (you never had the right to assume that I will continue to work for you beyond my notice period). It’s a contract negotiation, not a threat, so not extortion. The same way that “we will cut off the internet access if you don’t pay the internet bill” is not extortion from comcast, it’s just a statement of fact.

I think it all comes down to semantics, and the exact definition of "threat". If you define threat as warning someone that you will do something that will negatively affect them, then threatening to quit absolutely qualifies as extortion, just as Comcast threatening to turn off your internet service if you don't pay your bill also qualifies as extortion.

As I said in another post here, Wikipedia's definition of extortion is: ""Extortion, which is not limited to the taking of property, involves the verbal or written instillation of fear that something will happen to the victim if they do not comply with the extortionist's will." Getting your internet service is a negative thing, so and Comcast's will is for you to pay your bill, so I think it fits the definition of extortion here. As do all contract negotiations.

In summary, I think these definitions need a lot of work.


You don't have a right to prevent someone from telling secrets they know either.

Actually, in some cases you do. But anyway, blackmail is not about telling secrets, it's about coercion under the threat of telling secrets. You know, kinda like how rape is about consent, not about preventing people from having sex.

I would think that in the history of civilization there have been many instances in which someone demanded a raise and threatened to quit, and their boss shouted "this is extortion!" It hasn't actually happened to me, but it is the sort of scenario I feel certain has happened.

I think threatening to quit actually does qualify as extortion according to Wikipedia:

"Extortion, which is not limited to the taking of property, involves the verbal or written instillation of fear that something will happen to the victim if they do not comply with the extortionist's will."

Similarly, threatening to get a divorce, or break up with your SO, if they don't change their behavior, is also extortion under this definition. In fact, any kind of demand for something, or else there will be consequences (such as not buying from that company again, or severing a relationship) can be viewed as extortion it seems.

Hopefully, the actual legal definition is written better than the Wikipedia definition...


A company that will get hurt if 1 person quits, does not deserve to be around. Also threat is "I will kill your children" (no I will not kill anyone's children!)

The phrase "I will quit" is 100% within my legal rights and 100% NOT your legal right to stop me :) Now, if we have a contract that "I need to serve the contract or else $1000 penalty", I stil have the RIGHT to quit, and take me to court to get your $1000. If I cannot quit.. well.. that's slavery.


Relationships between employees and employers are uneven by definition, so threatening to quit isn't really forcing your boss to pay you more.

Threatening to reveal information is not really forcing someone to pay, either.

It's exploiting their vulnerable state so that they feel they have no choice but to comply. There's an element of coercion.

Clearly different from an employment relationship. You can't really coerce your boss.


Practically, mostly true. Certainly one can construct scenarios where an employer has let too much depend on a single employee. Pay me $1m or I quit and you won’t be able to ship this product on which the company depends for survival.

So at what point is breaking up unless your SO changes something about themselves become blackmail, because it seems to fit the second definition (and perhaps the first depending upon economic philosophy).

I think an improved definition may be: coercing someone using the threat of the revelation of a secret to a third party, where there is no requirement the secret not be known by any fourth party.

It's not relevant whether the act is otherwise illegal; someone may commit blackmail additionally to another crime. There's also no need to be paid; you could blackmail someone to not perform their job, or to not compete with you, for instance.


That muddies the water a bit; my boss threatened to fire me if i didn't do my job is blackmail under your definition.

> That muddies the water a bit; my boss threatened to fire me if i didn't do my job is blackmail under your definition.

“I threatened to quit my job unless paid more,” fits either definition, so the problem isn't just with the revision.


I think you'd need a concept of licit and illicit threats worked in to make it work, which may be unavoidable. For example, in general, obligations legal under modern contract law would be licit. (If you counter with "what if $SPECIFIC_THING?", I'd say "you missed the 'in general'". I'm going to spare us twenty paragraphs trying to nail that down, and I suggest you run with me on that, I mean, unless you're just dying to read that....)

Otherwise you end up with "if you don't make your corn flakes tastier than your competition I'm going to buy theirs" and that's clearly not what we're going for here. The problem lies in the specific conditions being laid down, not the mere conditionalization of my actions on yours.

I mean, if you really think about it, it's not even clear what it would mean to try to ban conditionalizing your actions on the actions of others.


No, because doing their job is something they ostensibly said they wanted to do when they took the job

Just because you wanted to do something in the past, doesn't remove your right to change you mind, that's taking woman's rights back to the 'no rape law within the holy sacrament of marriage' days.

That's not a good definition for blackmail - if I threaten to not perform my job without pay and go home instead, it would qualify under your definition.

Thank you for making my first point: No two people agree. Unfortunately, you haven't offered a superior definition.

Most people would agree a preexisting arrangement like an employment contract would make your example not fall under blackmail.


Oh, cool: the 'do you have any better idea?' response.

yes, I actually do.

Blackmail is the attempt to coerce someone into doing something they do not desire to do by threatening with the exposure of information they do not want exposed.

How is that? better than: To blackmail is to threaten to do something otherwise legal (usually divulge information) unless you are paid.

By the way, if I said that genocide was the killing of another being, and you said that was a terrible definition, I probably wouldn't complain if you didn't have another definition, you know, because genocide is pretty well defined (as is blackmail)


Openly disclosing the threat because it is the kind of behavior that falls within the bounds of social norms pretty much makes it ok. It is harder to blackmail people out in the open.

In any case, I think the line is marginally less blurry when you consider the blackmailer's intentionally maintained ability to do harm with the unreleased information. The blackmailer must have information which is known to be harmful to reveal, and they use the threat of that harm to coerce something out of the harmed party. It's not really about secrets per se, but secrets which can be leveraged to do harm.


Right, so the only thing you can do as individual is to defend your own position/moral. In the end what determine the answer to the problem of 'should x be illegal' is entirely depends on how successful are you to defend your position. There are no one "true" answer.

I prefer the definition as described in UK Law under the Theft Act 1968:

Blackmail consists of making an unwarranted demand with menaces with a view to making a gain or causing a loss.

This article seems to focus on ANY demand - your credit card 'threatening' to release information about your non-payment, for example. That is part of your agreement. That is not unwarranted. That is not blackmail.

Heres some clarification with case law (again, this is UK): http://www.e-lawresources.co.uk/Blackmail.php


My understanding was different: in a "legal blackmail" world debt collectors would try to dig up dirt on you to aid in the collection process:

> Credit cards charge unreasonable rates because there is no collateral. If you don’t pay, they can harass you, and damage your reputation via credit reports, but mostly, as long as you don’t mind losing access to credit, you can run the no-pay strategy and it will work.

> In a legal blackmail world, that credit card company would then seek out damaging information about you, to try and get you to pay. Since you would often be unable to pay, that information would often get released. Other times, you would end up lying or stealing to get the money.


From the link:

Unwarranted demand: A demand is unwarranted unless: (a) that they had reasonable grounds for making the demand AND (b) that the use of menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

i.e. the use of "menaces" needs to be proper. In this case, their contract is the proper means of enforcement. Digging up additional "dirt" not covered/mentioned in the relationship would be considered improper, and is therefore blackmail.


This is incredibly stupid.

First, the title should be "Why should blackmail be illegal?"

Second, the answer is: because you have the right to keep secrets, and you should not have to pay someone who happens to learn one of your secrets in order to continue to exercise that right.

[EDIT] You have the right to keep certain secrets, like your bank account number or your sexual preferences, but not your criminal activity. So blackmailing someone by threatening to out them as gay or exposing an extramarital affair should be illegal on the grounds that you have the right to keep those things secret, but blackmailing someone by threatening to expose criminal activity should be illegal on the grounds that helping to keep that secret makes the blackmailer an accomplice to the crime.


You have the right not to release information unless legally compelled to. But you generally have no right to compel someone else _not_ to reveal (true) information no matter what level of secrecy you assign to it.

I think the answer is that blackmail should be illegal, but it requires a deeper answer than just the "right to keep secrets". The article does a fairly good job of breaking down the problem, but it's not easy to summarize.


It's thought provoking because there really is a gray line between where payments to keep information secret is a legitimate private transaction and where they cross into criminality. And there are situations on either side of that line where I have trouble articulating why exactly one feels OK and the other doesn't.

I agree and I think the Bezos/National Enquirer situation is a good illustration of how difficult it is to articulate where that line is.

If the National Enquirer had offered to kill the story in exchange for Bezos paying them a million dollars would that have been as scandalous as their request to have the owner of a well-known newspaper make a false public statement that he disagrees with? Probably not.

Along the same lines, if the National Enquirer threatened to publish your personal text messages and photos unless you paid them a million dollars that would feel infinitely more outrageous than if the exact same offer were made to Bezos. Requesting a million dollars from the richest man in the world just doesn't feel as wrong.


He wouldn't be the richest man in the world for long if it was legal for everyone to blackmail him.

You say that you have a right to keep secrets. Does that means that it should also be illegal to publicize someone else’s secrets, without any threat or demand for money?

That depends on the secret. You don't have the right to keep anything a secret. For example, you don't have the right to keep your criminal activity a secret. But you do have the right to keep, say, your bank account number or your sexual preferences a secret. So yes, I think (for example) outing someone as gay should be illegal (I'd make it a civil offense, not a criminal one).

So if your friend catches your wife cheating on you, he should be the one getting in trouble for telling you? (Assuming this is a secret she'd prefer to keep from you)

Private disclosure is different from a public one.

Let's say you have a president, or something, who cheats on his wife, publicizing that should be illegal?

Again, the rules are different for public figures than for private citizens.

That seems overly draconian. If you call someone gay and it happens that they were without your knowledge... then they would have to out themselves in court to prove that you legitimately outed them, even on accident.

Being gay doesn't carry the stigma that it used to, so consider a more serious charge: suppose I out you, rightly or wrongly, as a pedophile. (Note that merely being a pedophile is not illegal.)

I don't think it should be illegal to do that, per se. If doing so intentionally brought undue and unreasonable harm upon me, then the general act of causing that harm could be made illegal, while the specific act which happened to cause it is not. For instance, that could be slander/libel.

If it were a true statement, then I certainly wouldn't have it be illegal. If your society fails to react correctly to the truth, I see no reason to believe it will be improved my making the truth illegal to speak.


Only if you could prove that it wasn't true.

If it were a true statement, then I certainly wouldn't have it be illegal. If your society fails to react correctly to the truth, I see no reason to believe it will be improved my making the truth illegal to speak.

In the UK it is. Truth is not a defense to libel/defamation in the UK.

However, if I (through legal means) learn one of your secrets and just go ahead and publish it, that's usually perfectly legal. For that matter, if you find out I know something and offer me a quid-pro-quo for signing an NDA and not revealing it, that's probably legal as well. IANAL.

> For that matter, if you find out I know something and offer me a quid-pro-quo for signing an NDA and not revealing it, that's probably legal as well.

This is correct. As long as the quid pro quo isn't illegal or coerced.

"I won't tell your secret and you won't tell mine." - Okay

"I won't tell your secret and you'll pay me a reasonable sum of money." - Okay

"You won't tell my secret and you won't get murdered." - Not Okay (Coercion)

"I won't tell your secret and you'll help me commit this crime." - Not Okay (Illegal)


> "I won't tell your secret and you'll pay me a reasonable sum of money." - Okay

That's blackmail though.


Sometimes. But most of the time it's a non-disclosure agreement, a settlement agreement, or any number of other perfectly legal agreements between two parties.

Most of the time the illegality comes in if there’s some secret involving criminal activity. “Pay me $100K or I spill the beans about how you’re embezzling.”

Or, it's an NDA.

I will disagree, you have no right to both keep secrets and allow other people to know them. I think blackmail should be illegal in the case of threatening to disclose criminal activity. But that case has nothing to do with the right to keep secrets. It should be illegal because it's essentially using the threat of state violence for personal gain. Any threats of violence for personal gain should be illegal.

I will note even with this limited scope it gets complicated. For example if you are being harassed and threaten to report the aggressor for criminal harassment if they do not leave you alone you might be commiting blackmail.


> you have no right to both keep secrets and allow other people to know them.

But presumably one ought to have the right to not be charged an outrageous fee for someone to keep their secret.

It shouldn't be illegal to share someone else's secret.

It should, however, be illegal to twist that secret to your advantage by exploiting the vulnerable state of the person to whom the secret relates.


What? Telling someone you intend to enforce the law if they continue to break it is in no way blackmail.

IANAL, but if the secret involves criminal activity that appears to be the specific case covered by US Federal law.

I thought the answer was obvious - then realized blackmail is seemingly a more vague term than I'd previous thought. My previous understanding was that blackmail was ~"a threat to reveal illegal activity unless you were compensated" The reason this is pretty obviously illegal is that it's what builds up pyramids of corruption. Alice skims some cash, Bob demands cash or he'll turn in Alice. Alice skims more cash to pay Bob. Charles discovers Bob is blackmailing Alice and demands money from Alice and Bob etc etc. Pay-offs/golden-handcuffs CEOs on one side and short-selling and all manner of other mechanisms that have sprung up, are to skirt the rules of directly demanding money in return for silence.

Well, it _is_ illegal in most of these places: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackmail

This probably reads to some like "debate over its legality is unimportant because it is illegal". I think it's not known by a lot of people that it is illegal (in many places), and not initially clear from the article, with it appearing to argue that blackmail should be made illegal.

>Economists have long faced an embarrassing question: If it helps deter undesirable actions, what exactly is wrong with blackmail?

First, what are those "undesirable actions"? Can they be derived from first principles?

If not, why can't blackmail simply be added to those (and that be enough justification that it's illegal)? In this case, it doesn't matter if blackmail "helps deter undesirable actions", since it's an undesirable action itself.

In the end, what a society finds an "undesirable action" (including things like murder or incest) is a decision. Some societies are OK with ritual murder, others allowed incest. Some tribal societies under study even allowed theft. (And of course the US e.g. allows judicial executions, which are still a kind of murder). In which case, there's no reason why blackmail can't just be added to the "undesirable actions" list ad hoc -- all the items are there in an ad hoc way anyway.

Second, blackmail implies a covert monetary transaction (to shush the blackmailer). As such, shouldn't it be in the open, with e.g. IRS knowing? Isn't it illegal as a blackmarket activity?

Third, isn't blackmail an invasion of privacy? If someone keeps secret that they're gay, and someone blackmails them for that, aren't they threatening with an invasion of privacy, which should be illegal? Individuals should be able to control their private information. In which case, I'm arguing that even publicizing the fact that X is e.g. into BDSM or whatever without their consent should be punishable (and in some jurisdictions such actions are iirc, regardless if the accusation is true).


Can someone help me understand the context of this? Is this just some philosophical thought-experiment, or is there a real problem to be solved?

Also: If blackmailing becomes legal before soft drugs do I'm gonna be SO pissed :D


Argument 5.

5. It is especially wrong to gain money by hurting someone.

As long as the blackmailed keeps paying, the blackmailer doesn't do the hurtful thing.

But then I suppose the very act of blackmail is considered a harm. But if that is true, then it should be illegal. Like assaulting, raping, robing, stabbing someone.


If blackmail should be illegal, it should be on the grounds that it is a form of harassment, like stalking.

Basically, the content of the harassment is immaterial.


The worst form of blackmail in the US is probably the plea bargain. I guess there are literally thousands of innocent people serving jail time because they did not have a decent legal counsel to stop them from signing a bad deal.

While RTA, I was reminded of this from a few months ago:

https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-12-14/chinese-millennial...

> ... [the victim] reportedly sent several nude pictures to the lender to receive a 4,000 yuan loan ($800) ...


I think the author’s hypotheticals are off. In a world where blackmail is allowed, I think transparency would just be more normal, and secrets would be more rare. For example, people would be more open about cheating, sexual preferences, etc. I think in that world, along with blackmail, many taboo things would become more normalized.

I think that would be true in a culture made of Homo Economicus, but I think you're going to have a rough time of that plan with Homo Sapiens. Status matters, and there's going to be some way to judge that status, and there's going to be some delta between the society's understanding of your actions and their assessment of the resulting status and your actual actions, and some way to blackmail with that.

I mean, we already at least have subcultures that are fairly open about cheating and sexual preferences, but then those same cultures will nuke your social status into oblivion if you accidentally say the wrong racist word. (Let alone in a just a moment's poor judgment do it deliberately.) There's gonna be something.

But I would endorse the idea that there will be second-order effects, some of which may mitigate the problem. But I think that a lot of the people inclined to propose this wouldn't particularly enjoy them, either. For an example ripped from the headlines, as it becomes increasingly acceptable to nuke someone's political career for making a woman somewhat uncomfortable forty years ago (that's a deliberate satirical exaggeration, not a characterization of any real case), I've wondered if the people making that accusation are really thinking things through; do they really want to limit all public office only to people who were so socially clumsy and awkward when young that they never made a false move because they never made a move at all? I mean, hey, suddenly that would open up rather a lot of high power careers to me, sure, so I suppose I'm self-interestedly all for it in a sarcastic sense, but I'm not sure everyone's going to be interested in that being the criteria for serving in office or for that being the cost of leading a peaceful, unblackmailed life.


There is a difference between “making a move” and “harassment”.

It doesn’t take much intelligence or confidence to have sex with a child, too.


'There is a difference between “making a move” and “harassment”.'

Along with the fact that I suspect you are trying to refer to a specific incident, I'd point out that in a world where everything is subjective and in the eye of the beholder/victim, no, actually, there isn't. This is relevant in the context of discussion of "blackmail", if your definition of "make a move" happens to be their definition of "harassment". Even if "heavenlyblue" thinks it's the former, it's not going to help.


No, there is: if the victim told you it’s harassment, you immediately stop. You jail those who don’t stop after being asked to stop.

Legally speaking you don’t need to define the ways in which the law allows you to unconditionally communicate (verbally, physcally or non-verbally) with me. If I told you to stay back - then you should stay back and I don’t owe you an apology.

You’re trying to reduce everything to relativism. I think the real world is quite a bit more black and white in such cases. And we have jury for the cases that are gray areas.


Your definition does not correspond to the one being used "in the wild", and I think it's a motte and bailey argument.

Part of the author's point (you have to dig for it) is that we do live in a world where blackmail is allowed.

> Want it all to be legal?

> That sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?

> Bad news.

> I’ve been describing our world.

> It’s legal.


It seems like there is a lot of overthinking.

Generally, we don’t want people doing serious harm to other people for personal gain.

This covers muggings, murder, blackmail, other forms of extortion, etc.


It's amazing how this comment thread is full of people who do they comprehend the reasonable person standard of law, and think law is invalid because they can invent some pathological corner case.

Blackmail is the contagion of corruption. It stretches the corruption like a fungi web through society- until it becomes to large to maintain or gets cut off from its food supply.

Its corruption growth that reveals most corruption. Thats why the sums usually grow so fast. Because the silence of the many, in this graph is so costly.


Spillover effects and game theory all along. Sure, it is those who are interested to know the information are victims, but they do not even know and are not in position to defend themselves.

So, law steps in and declares that (only) way to profit from embarrassing true information is to release it.


This seems like it is hard to justify as illegal only because the view is restricted to just two parties.

Blackmail is illegal because it leads to societal harm. Not because it leads to individual harm. That is hopefully a happy coincidence.


For the uninitiated this is "rationalist" writing and makes numerous references to a Harry Potter fan-fiction written by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Some of the phrases and mannerisms might be confusing if you don't know about him and his following.

http://yudkowsky.net/rational/


Spoiler alert: it already is!

There's a lot of conflation here between immoral and illegal, which the article itself even raises just to ignore it's own point and I'm left very unclear what the actual message is beyond "don't be bad!"

>> It is especially wrong to gain money by hurting someone.

No so.

With blackmail, you identify a problem that someone else has and you explain it to them (for free) and then you sell them the solution for a price. It's not so different from what big corporations are doing these days.

>> Saying embarrassing things about someone hurts them.

No, it makes them stronger and more authentic.

>> Blackmail discourages embarrassing activities, but some things just can’t be changed.

But they can be destroyed.




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