“Blackmail threats are e-mail from a madman.” - Michael Bassey Johnson, Master of Maxims
The age of the internet and social media has brought about the evolution of a new class of warriors amongst our society – the keyboard warrior.
Those individuals who find themselves among this new class of warriors are often described to be more belligerent with an aggressive bravado because, as it turns out, it is far easier to adopt the personality of a 6-foot-8 Olympic wrestler when you are fighting from behind the confines of a keyboard. Instead of liquid courage, the dawn of keyboard courage is upon us.
Yet, it is crucial to remember that acts perpetrated on the internet is just as accountable in real life. In recent years, internet crime such as doxing, criminal intimidation and blackmail has become a greater concern than ever before.
Criminal Intimidation and Blackmail
Criminal Intimidation is the use of a threat in order to induce the recipient or any other person to do an act and/or omit an act that he or she is not legally bound to. Whether such a statement will be considered as a threat in the eyes of the law is a question of fact and particular to each incident. Accordingly, the key element in criminal intimidation is whether the threat was issued with an intent to cause alarm. Criminal Intimidation is an offense pursuant to section 24 of the Crimes Ordinance (Cap. 200).
Blackmail is the making of any unwarranted demands with menace (e.g. using threat). The elements and definition of blackmail is the making of an unwarranted demand with menaces. Blackmail is an offence under section 23 of the Theft Ordinance (Cap. 210).
The most common example is where a victim is asked to pay a sum of money, failing which, publication of sexually explicit photos will be made.
But not all criminal intimidations/blackmails are as explicit as above. In the scenario below for example, the question arises as to whether the threat of causing potential trouble for the recipient at work (thereby causing alarm to the recipient) made with a view to induce unwarranted acts/omission of which the recipient is not legally bound to do is sufficient to be construed as a form of criminal intimidation under law.
Message: “Friend A showed me your two court decisions/articles referring to my case [which had undesirable outcome]. I’m sure the client will give you lots of fun stuff to cite/write about by the time we get through the CFA! We will get you to Part 15! Trust all is well at your new firm and say hi to your firm’s partner X. We were associates together back in the day.”
Potential/Intended Interpretation: “Cite the case again and I will make you lose your job at your new firm by leveraging my past relationship with partner X ”
It should be noted however that a key hurdle for a prosecutor to overcome any such cases is the establishment of causation. For example, if the act in question is merely that of a statement of fact without any hint of consequences (e.g. in an educational setting), then there is no case for criminal intimidation.
“I’m not threatening the king, ser. I’m educating my nephew. Bronn, the next time Ser Meryn speaks, kill him. That was a threat. See the difference?” - Tyrion Lannister from the Game of Thrones
In the scenario above, the implied consequence when read with the greater context of the entire message can be made out (e.g. threat of workplace harassment is in the same sentence as the unwarranted complaint). In this particular scenario, the sender was clearly attempting to induce the recipient to stop certain action (e.g. writing about cases published by the Judiciary) despite the fact that the recipient was in no way legally bound to do so. Further, the statement can be said to have been made with malice.
Potential Consequences of Internet Crime
Both law enforcement and the Courts have taken an active stance in tackling cyber bullying related crimes. In the recent case of 香港特別行政區 訴 陳景僖DCCC 164/2020 for example, the crime of doxing was prosecuted to the fullest.
Conversely, internet crime such as criminal intimidation and blackmail also carries real world consequence. Blackmail for example carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail.
Therefore, whilst keyboard courage (similar to liquid courage) may give you the false sense of insulation, always remember:
1. Do not threaten. A threat with unwarranted malice is a crime under the laws of Hong Kong and will carry real life consequences (e.g. jail time);
2. Virtual action matters! Your actions on the internet will carry real life consequence. If you think consequence in person is dangerous, the same applies online; and
3. Stay sober. The combination of liquid courage and that of keyboard courage can be disastrous. The age of internet has made every netizen a potential “drunk-ex” candidate. Such drunk text, whether intended or un-intended can have real world consequences. Alas, it is trite law that drunkenness, whether voluntary or not, is of no defence!