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I'm seeing more and more questions about illegal activity, or the legality of certain activities showing up on the SO-sites. Should the FAQ be amended to state unequivocally that the community is not here to offer legal advice, nor should anybody be seeking legal advice from the community?

I have personally been flagging these posts, and posting comments when necessary in attempts to curb these, and related, questions. What, if anything, else should be done when we come across questions like this which could potentially be viewed as community-provided legal-direction, especially if people attempt to answer them.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

In my opinion the solution in most cases is to upvote an answer like ,,We are not lawyers, we do not know the details of your situation and the law of the country you live in. Hire a lawyer''.

Some legal questions are quite legitimate. Certain use-cases of GPL-family license are a common case.

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Using SO as an example:

Q: I wrote a program that sets the zoom level on my webcam programmatically. What should I use as the default value for the average computer-on-desk office setup?

This is a photography question, not a programming question, and would be closed/deleted immediately.

Q: I'm writing a utility to perform common statistical calculations, because I'm a biology researcher. Most of my experiments involve one control group and one experimental group. Should I be implementing t-tests or ANOVAs in my utility?

This is a statistics question, not a programming question, and would be closed/deleted immediately.

Q: I wrote a tool that searches the Internet for pictures/video of my favorite TV show and automatically posts them to my website. Is it legal to use this tool? What about distributing it on github?

This is a legal question, not a programming question. Why wouldn't we close/delete it immediately?

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I don't understand why this is so difficult for programmers to figure out. Aren't we supposed to be able to tell nuanced differences in things? –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 17:08
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Another way to look at it is that almost all legal questions should be closed as Too Localized, given the legal differences at the local, state, national, and international level. The "right answer" would either be too general and not useful at all (for a particular jurisdiction), or too specific and not useful to anyone else. –  Rob Hruska Jan 27 '12 at 17:14
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@paxdiablo hit it on the head with his "answer" here (deleted question - 10k only). –  Rob Hruska Jan 27 '12 at 17:20

Although I would love to say these questions should be banned outright, it is hard to enforce. The fundamental problem is that the questions are legitimate, as long as there is a clear disclaimer that we are not lawyers.

Question requesting software or links to downloads are deleted without any warning, as this is definitely a big no. I often also switch the question to CW as their is never a right answer, unless we suddenly have a lawyer answering these questions.

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I can't imagine a lawyer would dare provide an answer in a community forum. It might be considered legal advice and he or she could be liable for it. For the record: I'm no lawyer. :-) –  Tracy Probst Sep 3 '09 at 13:51
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There's a guy on Slashdot with a sig that says "I am a lawyer. I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice". He may be safe in this; not being a lawyer, I'm not really interested in the details, and I don't really know where to look. –  David Thornley Sep 3 '09 at 14:24

Definitly keep deleting illegal activity like asking for software, linking to warez (we still call em that right?) and talking about torrent sites.

For the other class of question, asking for legal advice, it gets more tricky. If only we had a Business of Software hero in the League of Justice where we might be able to have a lawyer or two cover those questions...

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People who look for legal advice on S[OFU] are very likely to not understand the background good enough to provide all details needed to give a meaningful advice. –  Tadeusz A. Kadłubowski Sep 3 '09 at 12:57
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People who look for online advice on Internet forums have this interesting habit of not specifying where they're from. I would expect the laws to differ significantly between, say, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Cairo, Egypt. –  David Thornley Sep 3 '09 at 14:26

Send them to startups.com? Legal questions are inescapable in setting up a business.

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I agree that SO definitely needs an amendment to the FAQ specifying explicitly what is on and off topic with respect to legal matters. Just look through the "legal" tag's catalog of questions, and it's almost completely arbitrary what questions are closed and what questions are left open and answered repeatedly. Look for absurdly open-ended legal questions like this one and this one and notice that they are deemed on-topic and healthy whereas some specific and programming-oriented ones such as this one are IMHO wrongfully closed.

Full disclosure: I'm posting this because I asked a specific, answerable question with the legal tag that I feel got wrongfully closed as off-topic with little-to-no-explanation for how to rephrase it better.

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You posted a question largely on a legal topic on a site for programming questions. Not site for questions of interest to programmers... a site for programming questions. –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 16:08
    
as for what questions are closed and what are not... there are 2.5 Million questions on Stack Overflow. We have numerous posts here on meta noting tags where we are deleting posts. There are plenty of things needing to be deleted. We get to them as we can. –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 16:10
    
@AndrewBarber The question did indeed ask about specific programming matters ("What approaches do webservers use to circumvent the 'Same Origin Policy' and read cookies issued outside their Domain and how can you prevent them?"). The second part of the question asked about the legality of the matter but was a secondary goal of the main question. If questions aren't even allowed to mention issues of legality, this should be explicitly stated in the SO FAQ. –  nomizzz Jan 27 '12 at 18:32
    
The question had two parts: 1) Give me legal advice 2) Give me technical information on how to avoid that legal advice. If it had just been part 2, I would have voted to close instead as "Not Constructive". –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 18:34
    
@AndrewBarber I apologize if you interpreted it that way, I would have edited it accordingly if I had known that; unfortunately, the question has been unceremoniously deleted so we can't give it a proper autopsy. Just to clarify for posterity, the first part of the question asked if there was any legislation on the issue whatsoever, making it a request for technical specification documents where people could make their own decision regarding legality (hardly asking for "legal advice"). –  nomizzz Jan 27 '12 at 18:48
    
Moreover, I can't understand how the second part would be "Not Constructive," as it attempts to ascertain the details of specific technical methods that are undoubtedly used by many websites. Some of these are most likely malicious and defending against them is not easy if we do not know them. –  nomizzz Jan 27 '12 at 18:50
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I am a 10k user. I can see it and know very well what it said. You were asking for legislation. That is undeniably way off-topic. –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 18:51
    
As for the second part... it could also be closed as a duplicate of about a thousand other questions asking how to read cookies from other sites. If that's what you want to know, do a search. –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 18:53
    
and of course now I see you've already asked that exact question yourself, just a couple weeks ago. –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 18:58
    
It was misinterpreted then and used as a vehicle for another cause, and it is being misinterpreted now and being painted as a black sheep. I guess I'll throw in the towel and let the damn advertisers view my browsing history. –  nomizzz Jan 27 '12 at 19:07
    
Thanks for making my point: That question is not constructive... it generates "discussion" and "debate". –  Andrew Barber Jan 27 '12 at 19:09
    
let us continue this discussion in chat –  nomizzz Jan 27 '12 at 19:13

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