Highlights from the Blackmail Debate (Robin Hanson vs Zvi Mowshowitz)

At one of our weekly LessWrong events, we had a lively debate on legalizing blackmail (video, transcript). Robin Hanson took the pro side, Zvi Mowshowitz took the con, and I moderated. 70 people showed up to watch for ~2 hours.

Here’s my overview of their positions.

  • Zvi thinks that blackmail would incentivize a whole host of terrible actions, such as trying to trick people into norm violation, and people becoming intensely secretive even around their closest friends and family.

  • Robin thinks that blackmail is a weird rule, where you cannot ask for money to keep a secret, but the other person is allowed to offer it (e.g. people can offer you money if you sign an NDAs). This makes no sense and Robin is looking for any clear reason why making one side of this deal should be illegal.

Below are some quotes from their conversation. And of course, there’s the full edited transcript and video for those who want all the details.


What’s good about blackmail

Robin Hanson: I think in the case of say David Letterman, who famously was blackmailed for having affairs, if he could have actually been successfully blackmailed, then people like Letterman would be doing much less of what he was doing. And these weren’t just affairs with random people who liked him, these were employees of him and so they are much more morally questionable. And so I think there would just be a lot less sexual harassment if blackmail was legal.

Robin Hanson: There are a lot of powerful people who break a lot of rules, actually legal rules in many ways. And then the people around them shut up about it, let them get away with it because they don’t feel they actually have a credible threat to report it. And so they don’t. And so blackmail would mean a lot more actual reporting or a discouragement of the things powerful people do, that break rules and norms.

Spreading dirt is often prosocial

Zvi Mowshowitz: Essentially your argument is that in today’s world, if people online were to find out something about you and decide to cause a lot of trouble in your life based on this thing, that it must’ve been a bad thing that the public absolutely needed to know.

Robin Hanson: On average, letting people know about other people’s dirt is a good thing. The incentives to not have dirt, the incentive to expose dirt, are on average a good thing. Yes, they go wrong in many particular ways. But on average, they’re good. That’s my fundamental claim about why gossip is generally good, even when people are trying to find dirt in order to make someone look bad, and blackmail is just upping the incentives on that somewhat.

Banning isn’t the only option

Zvi Mowshowitz: So what I’m saying, blackmail specifically selects for the scenarios in which there is great harm.

Robin Hanson: So does trying to make somebody look bad. That’s the thing we’re talking about. There are situations now where people are trying to make other people look bad. Either you want to ban those, or you have to accept that on average those are good, even though they contain the problems reporting.

Zvi Mowshowitz: No. Okay, so I think there’s an important fallacy there, that I can not want to ban something but still think it’s in general pretty bad.

Bad effects of blackmail

Zvi Mowshowitz: I think, in a sense, blackmail makes these things much more negative. In particular, the incentive to entrap, the incentive to create negative material, to induce norm violations, is much much stronger under blackmail. And the fear of such things happening, in general, and the cost of navigating blackmail situations, and the fear of having to deal with these things is very bad. I would feel very stressed living under a blackmail legal regime.

Zvi Mowshowitz: The idea is that if we had less of them the world would be a better place, but there is no law that I can pass that banning it would not have other effects. But I can try to tax it, right? I can make it more costly. I can make it more inconvenient in ways that discourage the behavior, and maybe that’s even better than banning it, because now, when it was really worth doing, it happens anyway. And by tax, I don’t mean literally, “You must pay 5%.” I want to make this more annoying for you.

Blackmail leads to doxing?

Robin Hanson: Remember one of out other options is just to ban some kinds of gossip. So I said, we do properly ban telling people’s passwords or sharing their naked pictures. If you think there’s a kind of gossip that’s just harmful, you just ban that kind of gossip. We’re talking about allowing that gossip, except when one side makes an offer to pay the other, but not vice versa. That’s the puzzle we’re talking about, not just the generic, that some things you might not want to let people gossip about.

Zvi Mowshowitz: One recent example of potential blackmail is what if someone were to blackmail Scott Alexander and threatened to reveal his true name?

Robin Hanson: But again, you can have privacy rules about that. If you just want to say, you’re not allowed to reveal people’s anonymous names, just make that the rule. You’re talking about, it would be okay if it was gossip but not if it wasn’t, but that’s not true in this case. You think it would be bad even if it was revealed without monetary incentive.

Blackmail is a weird rule

Zvi Mowshowitz: My claim is not that there are no things we want to outright ban you from sharing. I’m saying there’ll be a lot of things that we cannot enumerate and ban you from sharing that we nevertheless want to tax the sharing of.

Robin Hanson: The key thing isn’t whether certain information should be revealed or not, it’s whether you should add this extra complexity. So again, we always have the option to ban gossip or to require it, but what we have is this weird rule where you’re allowed to do it in trade for other things, but not for money, but you are allowed to do it for money if one side makes the offer, but not the other side makes the offer. This is the thing I find very hard to justify.

Robin Hanson: I can understand why something should be private and something should be published, and something should be allowed to be said and some things not. But why this weird combination of not the money unless one side makes the offer but not the other. You haven’t addressed this one side versus the other thing at all in your entire conversation here. You haven’t addressed the possibility of an NDA, doing all of these examples you don’t like.

Hanson’s strongest claim

Robin Hanson: My claim was not so much that blackmail is good but that no one had offered concrete, clear, consequentialist arguments for why blackmail should be banned, especially relative to allowing NDAs in terms of who makes the offer. That’s my strongest claim. And my claim, especially, is about coming up with explicit reasons and arguments. So it’s about the fact that in society, we just have a lot of policies that, if you look at them, you’re not sure what their justification is. If you ask people, they give you various justifications that are contradictory. I think it’s a sad situation that we don’t have clear justification for most of our policies.


How much does blackmail punish you?

Robin Hanson: Law and blackmail are two different channels. I’m endorsing both channels. We have a formal legal system where we have things formally crimes, and they’re formally punished by legislatures deciding the sentence, resources of the police, and fines. But also, we have a system of blackmail, wherein people are paid financially and other ways for their doing things that the audience will disapprove of. Those are two different ways that the larger world disapproves and discourages things.

Ben Pace: The level at which society wants to hurt you, or get your private information, is not really often in proportion to how much they think it is just to hurt you, or I think it is just to hurt you. Whereas a lot of tabloid press that will just hurt you because it gets them attention, and they can join in gossip in a big conversation in a way certainly I don’t endorse, and I think most people don’t endorse.

Robin Hanson: Well, then, why not make that illegal then, Ben?

Ben Pace: I think illegal is strong and kind of silencing thing.

Robin Hanson: Well, that’s true for blackmail as well.

Zvi Mowshowitz: No, I don’t think it is. Why does blackmail have a chilling effect?

Robin Hanson: The mud-raking journalists have a chilling effect. Of course. They all have a chilling effect. The question is whether it’s too much or not enough.

Ben Pace: But Robin, is your take that the tabloids shouldn’t do that to people, and it should be illegal, or is your take that, no, we should have this and encourage it more with more money.

Robin Hanson: I’d say that, on average, the tabloids exposing things about people is, on average, a good thing. It goes wrong in many particular ways, but I do not want to ban the tabloids from writing exposes.

Ben Pace: I don’t want to ban them from writing exposes, but I currently think the situation is kind of like blackmailing in which they will extract way more resources than is proportional, and on that do massive amounts of damage.

Robin Hanson: I don’t see that.

What would legalized blackmail actually look like?

Zvi Mowshowitz: I don’t even think that allowing blackmail would increase the number of such things that were in fact revealed. I think it would decrease it.

Zvi Mowshowitz: People would be more secretive, and in fact, sometimes when they were blackmailed, they would in fact pay. Other times they would find credible threats of retaliation and that would prevent the information from coming out. And I think that in particular, right now, when normally determining whether or not to share a gossip, they tend to share net useful gossip more than they tend to share net harmful gossip, and that blackmail reverses this incentive and also causes people to look for net harmful gossip, rather than look for net helpful gossip. Most of the time when people are looking for information, they’re looking for information the public needs to know.

Zvi Mowshowitz: I believe that most of the time, most people are not, when they seek information, primarily looking to harm someone. They’re primarily looking to benefit themselves, or benefit their friends or their allies in some way. Hurting someone else is mostly a side effect.

Robin Hanson: That’s also true with blackmail. The main effect is the money, not the hurt. Their main motivation is to get the compensation.

Zvi Mowshowitz: The main benefit is to gain the power over the person that you extract something of value, whether it’s money or something else.

Robin Hanson: But that’s not the same as hurting.

Zvi Mowshowitz: But the way that you do that is you gain the ability to hurt someone.

Robin Hanson: I disagree with that whole framing. Verizon, which is my person who supplies my internet and my phone and my TV, they want me to really want their product. So the more that they can make me really desperate for their product, then the more I’m willing to pay for it. Of course they do it, hopefully, by making their product attractive. But that is a way of gaining power over me. In general, all through society, when people are making deals with the other, in anticipation of those deals, they want to be in demand. They want to want the other party to want them. That’s basically the same thing. It’s all about, before a deal, wanting to have the other party want to make the deal. So that happens in marriages, it happens in jobs, it happens to me with Verizon. Is that harm? Is the effort that Verizon goes through to make sure that I don’t want to be without their service, is that harming me because now it makes me more willing to pay for their service?

Zvi Mowshowitz: But doesn’t Verizon do that by offering a benefit? Verizon creates a service that makes your life better so that you will be willing to buy it. So if Verizon were to, say, cut the wires of their competition so that their competition couldn’t come to your house, and then threatened to cut off your service unless you paid them 10 times as much, that seems-

Robin Hanson: That’s what I said in my initial remarks about the reference point. You have in mind, the reference point is, I say nothing. And so I’m harming you by threatening to say something. But what if the reference was, I was going to say it anyway and you pay me not to say it, well now with respect to that reference point, I’m helping you by letting you pay me not to say it. So it all comes down to what’s the reference behavior you thought would have happened instead.

The cost of having norms

Ben Pace: There’s a question of scale. I am okay with you telling a bunch of people that I did something bad. I’m not okay if you managed to get it on the front page of the New York Times.

Robin Hanson: It depends on who you are. If you’re an ordinary person, it won’t get on the front page of the Times.

Ben Pace: If I’m a rich person who is not very important in a lot of other ways, if I just have a lot of resources to be taken, even though it is not important about how I use those, then I think the blackmail, now, makes it much more likely that that information about me will get to a level of prominence and life-destroying damage that it would not previously, just because I have a lot of resources you can steal.

Robin Hanson: Well, why is it bad if New York Times readers find out about it, but not if other people find out about it? Why is that something that makes it bad?

Ben Pace: Because I think there’s a level of punishment that information, gossiping, should do to you, and in general, people sharing it when it seems useful feels like it will hit the balance where it will get shared as much as it’s useful. But people sharing it for as much resources they can take, I think, will encourage much over-punishment.

Ben Pace: Almost no norm violation of mine should be on the front page of New York Times, and if I have enough resources, then it will get there, if you allow blackmail.

Robin Hanson: I think you want your public stance to be that you do follow the norms.

Ben Pace: No, my public stance is that I do sometimes break norms, and I still should not have my life destroyed by that.

Zvi Mowshowitz: Regarding the New York Times, it’s interesting that when I worked for a certain corporation which I will not name, we had a principle that we could not put in any written form any statement that we would not want on the front page of the New York Times. And so, the very fact that someone might threaten to cause harm to us, or decide to cause harm to us by sharing this, meant that we had to be much more implicit, keep less records, destroy evidence, be much less rational–

Robin Hanson: That’s the general cost of norms. I mean, the norm system has cost, okay. It’s unique to humans. Other animals didn’t have it, and it’s part of the power of humanity that we’ve had and enforced norms, but norm systems definitely have costs. One of them is we sometimes have wrong norms. Sometimes we mis-enforce norms, in that we draw the wrong conclusions about who violated which norms, and we may well punish too much or too little in other situations. But still, on average, norms are good.

How did the audience’s minds change?

Well done to Robin for halving Zvi’s support! Better luck next time Zvi.

I myself moved from “blackmail should be illegal” to “I am confused”, and would be interested if people could write things to help resolve this debate further.

For the past few months we’ve had weekly LessWrong events on Sundays, and will continue to do so. We announce them on the frontpage by Thursday each week, check there for announcements of more talks, debates, and double cruxes.

Here is the full 2-hour video (with Q&A), and here is the full edited transcript.