Extortion, Blackmail or both…?

Apr 03 2010

This article is for all to read, but you should also consider that only a small part of what constitutes of the SORBS Database is the SORBS Spam Database. If you are not familiar with this distinction (and most people are not) please read the article on the SORBS Spam Database that defines what the SORBS Spam Database actually is.

Many people accuse SORBS of extortion or blackmail, in nearly all cases the people promoting it as such are people who are listed in the spam database for sending spam, most are the spammers themselves. Spammers go by multiple guises and will create multiple blogs, post (news group, forums and blog comments) accusing SORBS of extortion or blackmail to try and discredit SORBS so that fewer people use SORBS which means their spam can get through. There are the occasional people that do the same who are not spammer, but mis-guided by the myriad of posts by the spammers.

Here are some truths and the reality of the situation.

SORBS blocks nothing, the administrators (including those of the SORBS mail servers) use SORBS to decided whether to allow email through or reject it. This is the fundamental and legal point as to why SORBS is not blackmail or extortion. Of course there are those who disagree, but consider that SORBS has operated in multiple jurisdictions of the world, all with laws against extortion and blackmail, all where people have complained to law enforcement and consulted lawyers about private prosecutions. As of April 2010, SORBS has been operating the same policy for seven years and has never even had a court case started let alone lost for extortion or blackmail. We have never let anyone out because of pressure, indeed when we listed one of the mail servers for the Queensland (Australia) Police force I (Michelle Sullivan) received phone call threats from a senior sergeant about the listing. I explained the policy and explained why it was listed, and and what they needed to do to get the IP delisted, he argued for a few hours. A few days later the IP was delisted when they complied with the policy requirements. A similar issue happened with a number of departments of Australian Federal government (whom I later worked for) it caused a policy change for their email systems which now results in a significant reduction in spam from their hosts.

So why is it not extortion you ask? Well aside from the legal point I mentioned above, the definition of Extortion is (according to wikipedia) as follows:

Extortion, outwresting, or/and exaction is a criminal offense which occurs when a person unlawfully obtains either money, property or services from a person(s), entity, or institution, through coercion. Refraining from doing harm is sometimes euphemistically called protection. Extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime groups. The actual obtainment of money or property is not required to commit the offense. Making a threat of violence which refers to a requirement of a payment of money or property to halt future violence is sufficient to commit the offense. Exaction refers not only to extortion or the unlawful demanding and obtaining of something through force,[1] but additionally, in its formal definition, means the infliction of something such as pain and suffering or making somebody endure something unpleasant.[2]

In the United States, extortion may also be committed as a federal crime across a computer system, phone, by mail or in using any instrument of “interstate commerce.” Extortion requires that the individual sent the message “willingly” and “knowingly” as elements of the crime. The message only has to be sent (but does not have to reach the intended recipient) to commit the crime of extortion.

Extortion is distinguished from robbery. In “strong arm” robbery, the offender takes goods from the victim with use of immediate force. In “robbery” goods are taken or an attempt is made to take the goods against the will of another—with or without force. A bank robbery or extortion of a bank can be committed by a letter handed by the criminal to the teller. In extortion, the victim is threatened to hand over goods, or else damage to their reputation or other harm or violence against them may occur. Under federal law extortion can be committed with or without the use of force and with or without the use of a weapon. A key difference is that extortion always involves a written or verbal threat whereas robbery can occur without any verbal or written threat (refer to U.S.C. 875 and U.S.C. 876).

The term extortion is often used metaphorically to refer to usury or to price-gouging, though neither is legally considered extortion. It is also often used loosely to refer to everyday situations where one person feels indebted against their will, to another, in order to receive an essential service or avoid legal consequences. For example, certain lawsuits, fees for services such as banking, automobile insurance, gasoline prices, and even taxation, have all been labeled “legalized extortion” by people with various social or political beliefs.

Neither extortion nor blackmail require a threat of a criminal act, such as violence, merely a threat used to elicit actions, money, or property from the object of the extortion. Such threats include the filing of reports (true or not) of criminal behavior to the police, revelation of damaging facts (such as pictures of the object of the extortion in a compromising position), etc.

Now why SORBS often gets confused with extortion is because of the fourth paragraph, people feel indebted against their will, because they cannot send email to SORBS’ users without paying the ‘fine’ to get off the list. Problem is that is true (for the Spam Database), they cannot without paying the fine, and whilst that might leave a bad feeling for them, their IP address committed an act (in most case) which cost SORBS money. Their server accessed our servers either deliberately, accidentally or maliciously and used it’s bandwidth and resources against our acceptable use policy, against our wishes and without our permission. We would be well within our rights as service providers to charge someone real money for that usage (authorised or not) however we choose instead to make a requirement for the fine payers to donate to charity or a good cause. Our legal advice has told us this is fine to do, they have also indicated we could legally charge for that unauthorised access, but they added that whilst we could do it legally it would likely enable people to take us to court more easily and whilst there is legal basis for us to win every time, we would have to defend that, and defending law issues take time and cost money. We decided long ago that we should have the money donated to charity as they are plenty of worthy causes out there that are in dire need of financial aid

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