Merriam-Webster defines ‘dox’ to mean to “publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge” and the practice is generally frowned upon. Some of you may be familiar with the recent case involving CNN and the person who modified an old video clip of Trump engaging in a phony wrestling fight with someone. This person had superimposed the CNN logo over the head of the person getting ‘pummeled’ by Trump and Trump had (of course) re-tweeted the clip. CNN uncovered the identity of the person who had created the video and in the process found out that he had also posted racist and anti-Semitic content on the web.
How CNN dealt with this issue has raised a controversy as to whether they were blackmailing this person by threatening to dox him if he did not apologize and reform.
A CONTROVERSY ERUPTED late Tuesday night after CNN published an article announcing that it had uncovered the identity of the anonymous Reddit user who created the video of President Donald Trump punching a CNN logo. CNN and other outlets had previously reported that this user, who uses a pseudonym, had also posted anti-Semitic and racist content on Reddit, including an image identifying all of the Jewish employees of CNN, designated with a Jewish star next to their photos.
Though CNN decided — for now — not to reveal his name, the network made clear that this discretion was predicated on the user’s lengthy public apology, his promise not to repeat the behavior, and his status as a private citizen. But in its article, the network explicitly threatened that it could change its mind about withholding the user’s real name if his behavior changes in the future.
Does this constitute blackmail? A couple of years ago, I discussed that what constitutes blackmail is a tricky issue and discussed how many of us use tacit forms of it in our everyday interactions where we refrain from revealing things we know about others we know personally in the understanding that they will behave in a certain way. Is someone who tells another “I won’t tell so-and-so about this if you do me this favor” committing blackmail? This discussion following that post raised some interesting legal and ethical questions.
In that post, I discussed an article by Walter Block, N. Stephan Kinsella and Hans-Hermann Hoppe who, writing in The Second Paradox of Blackmail (Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 593-622), point to the paradoxes that can arise. One is that whether something is blackmail depends on who initiates the transaction. If I know a secret about someone and go to that person and threaten to reveal it unless they give me money, that is considered blackmail. But if that other person knew I knew their secret and approached me with an offer to buy my silence, that is bribery and not blackmail. In other words, who initiates the transaction determines the offense.
One could argue that in the first case there is explicit coercion involved and that is the determining factor. But coercion also exists in the case of non-disclosure agreements, where someone’s silence is bought in exchange for some remuneration or under threat of punishment. Such agreements are common and seem to sail close to the concept of blackmail, except that they are legally allowed. The authors illustrate this with an actual case.
As a real-world example, consider the fate of Autumn Jackson, who was convicted of extortion for threatening to tell the tabloids that she was entertainer Bill Cosby’s out-of-wedlock child unless he paid her $40 million. Many commentators noted with irony that if Jackson had first filed a paternity suit and then settled the suit in exchange for money and silence-essentially, being bribed-no crime would have been committed.
The authors of the article seem to be coming at it from a libertarian perspective and argue that blackmail is such a problematic concept that it should not be illegal but that what we think of as blackmail should be treated, as long as there is no threat of physical aggression, as a private transaction between two consenting parties where one person (the blackmailer) is selling a service (silence) and the other person is buying that service.
But libertarians, and rich people in general, tend to see physical aggression as the main determining factor in whether something should be treated as a crime because it is poor people who tend to commit crimes involving physical violence. We know that rich people like Donald Trump can threaten ordinary people with financial ruin by bringing lawsuits against them unless they remain silent. Why is such a threat less criminal than threatening to break their legs?
Coming back to the CNN case, there is no question that big news organizations have the resources to ferret out the identities of people who have chosen to remain anonymous online. Should they use that knowledge to coerce their behavior, however odious such people may be?