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In the main SO site, I have seen a few questions about botting for various games - something that is generally frowned upon by members of the online communities surrounding these games.

For example, I used to play WoW, and botting has a negative impact on the gameplay experience of other players, and is specifically prohibited in the EULA; would a topic regarding a WoW bot be appropriate? Another example is that MBAM does not allow automated installation of their software; is it okay to talk about doing this?

Basically, are these sorts of questions against the rules, or is the general attitude "That's the software developer's problem" here?

I can see an argument for either side of that coin, and I wonder where this community falls.

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Yeah, we don't enforce other people's policies. (At least moderators and employees don't unless there's a DMCA.) But as a user, you're free to downvote and close-vote. –  Mysticial Dec 27 '13 at 22:49
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@mysticial: As a general principle, does the community really want such questions? –  Robert Harvey Dec 27 '13 at 22:53
    
You mentioned the DMCA - in the MDY Industries vs Blizzard Inc case, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…, The 9th circuit court ruled that a software devoloper who was distributing a program which allowed users to violate the EULA was aiding in copyright circumvention trafficking (part of the DMCA). Using this site to distribute the code to achieve this could be viewed the same way. –  Alex Dec 27 '13 at 22:53
    
@TheGrinch Not often. But they sometimes stick around anyway. –  Mysticial Dec 27 '13 at 22:54
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As long as they're good programming questions, I don't see why we wouldn't want them. It's like with web site scraping questions - if the illicit intentions are obvious, the community will provide commments and often not provide an answer anyway. But it's not our responsibility. No point in establishing a general rule that can be circumvented anyway (by obscuring the final purpose) –  Pëkka Dec 27 '13 at 22:56
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"What's the rule regarding scripting which violates a program's EULA" You make angry noises and yell at them in comments on how it is wrong and they should be ashamed of themselves for engaging in that sort of practice. –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Dec 28 '13 at 7:03
    
This question appears to be off-topic because it belongs on Gaming's meta if anywhere. –  Rosinante Dec 28 '13 at 13:38
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@Rosinante: I'd say it applies here as well. The question might just as well have been about writing a crack for <Program X>. The question is about the script, not about the game. –  Jeroen Vannevel Dec 28 '13 at 17:04
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In a nutshell: "How do I write a bot?" is not OK, but "I'm writing a bot and this piece of code fails to compile. How do I fix this?" is OK. –  Lorem Ipsum Dec 28 '13 at 18:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The trick to asking such questions is making them general in nature. Any awareness of an attempt to specifically breach someone else's system runs afoul of the Stack Exchange TOS, which states you may not post content that

(e) contains a virus, trojan horse, worm, time bomb or other computer programming routine or engine that is intended to damage, detrimentally interfere with, surreptitiously intercept or expropriate any system, data or information"

Questions of a general nature are allowed (even if it might be possible to use the information to infringe), because we don't specifically know (nor can we control) how a question-asker (or anyone else) might use the information they receive from such a question.

Regardless, I don't think that it's in the best interest of Stack Overflow to serve as a bastion for people who want help writing a bot to their favorite cheat online games, though the theory behind such botting might prove to be interesting fodder.

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"I don't think that it's in the best interest of Stack Overflow to serve as a bastion for people who want help writing a bot to cheat online games" - I think it can actually go both ways. Once the information is readily available out there, the game makers can develop ways to counter them. –  Mysticial Dec 27 '13 at 23:02
    
True enough, although, just as we are not obligated to enforce their TOS, nor are we obligated to notify them of violations of their TOS that occur on SO. –  Robert Harvey Dec 27 '13 at 23:02
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"[the StackExchange TOS] states, in broad language, that we are not allowed to post material that violates the rights of others" - No, it doesn't. I don't think that's an accurate characterization of what the TOS says. The TOS has a lot of legalese, and one could debate exactly what it allows and doesn't prevent, but I don't think it's at all clearcut that the StackExchange TOS prevents posting such questions. (For instance, there's a big difference between violating copyright and violating someone third party's EULA or TOS.) I strongly dispute this answer. –  D.W. Dec 28 '13 at 6:38
    
@D.W: Why? Do you have a pressing need to ask such questions? –  Robert Harvey Dec 28 '13 at 6:48
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@TheGrinch, why? 1. Because I care about accuracy, and your answer is (in my opinion) not an accurate characterization of the StackExchange TOS. 2. Because yes, on some sites, the ability to ask (some) such questions is indeed important. See my other answer for a host of examples. If we adopted your proposed rule to the StackExchange network, then that would be to the detriment of those sites. –  D.W. Dec 28 '13 at 6:50
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@D.W. The TOS says that you may not post content that "(e) contains a virus, trojan horse, worm, time bomb or other computer programming routine or engine that is intended to damage, detrimentally interfere with, surreptitiously intercept or expropriate any system, data or information". I don't know how you can get any clearer than that. –  Robert Harvey Dec 28 '13 at 6:51
    
@TheGrinch, that part of the TOS is fairly clear but it's not what you wrote. You wrote that "Any awareness of an attempt to specifically violate someone else's EULA or TOS runs afoul of the Stack Exchange TOS", and that's not what the phrase you quote says. Many EULAs contain prohibitions that go beyond anything in that phrase you quote. You may think I'm splitting hairs, but the difference is important for some sites. I'm not supporting questions about spamming or other nasty stuff, but I'm saying that your question takes a very blanket stance which goes too far. –  D.W. Dec 28 '13 at 7:26
    
Moreover, your criteria that "any awareness of an attempt to violate TOS" automatically makes a question or answer prohibited is overbroad, and that's not what the StackExchange TOS actually say. The notion of "awareness" is something you have invented and is not found anywhere in the TOS. –  D.W. Dec 28 '13 at 7:27
    
@D.W.: I've made my quote more specific, to tailor it more closely to the specific question being asked. –  Robert Harvey Dec 28 '13 at 16:37
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Thanks, that's an improvement, but I'm afraid the statement "Any awareness of an attempt to specifically breach someone else's system runs afoul of the Stack Exchange TOS" is still not accurate. For instance, "awareness" is a concept/criterion you've invented and does not appear anywhere in the Stack Exchange TOS. –  D.W. Dec 28 '13 at 18:10
    
@D.W. Sorry, but that's all you get. There's no way I'm going to endorse the idea that asking folks to help someone breach a system is in any way a good idea. –  Robert Harvey Dec 28 '13 at 18:13
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I'm not asking you to endorse that idea. I'm asking you to be accurate in your characterization of what the Stack Exchange TOS actually says. If you want to advocate for a more stringent policy because you think it's a good idea, that's fine, but don't claim that it is mandated by the Stack Exchange TOS. As they say, you're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. –  D.W. Dec 28 '13 at 18:27
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@D.W. Kinda getting tired of explaining this but... The legal wording is crystal clear, and so is the distinction I am making between my own opinion and SE's. I'm sorry if I'm not explaining it clearly. Check out Shog9's answer; I agree with it one hundred percent. –  Robert Harvey Dec 28 '13 at 19:12

The legal matter

An End-User License Agreement is a contract between the maker and the users of a software package. Many of them are broadly written and some include restrictions which are unlikely to hold up in court; nevertheless, if you've agreed to such a contract it is your responsibility to honor it to the best of your ability.

If you haven't agreed to such a contract, then its existence is irrelevant to you.

Stack Overflow is a site for programmers to help each other solve programming problems, not a place for lawyers to help programmers identify legal issues. I'm certainly not willing to provide legal advice, and I doubt you are either - so resist the urge to try interpreting a contract that you suspect might apply to someone else, and avoid using any such interpretation as a stick with which to beat folks asking programming questions.

If someone's actually asking a legal question regarding some EULA, then that's off-topic: close it as such. But if the asker hasn't brought up a EULA or other 3rd-party contract, then why should you?

See also: Should moderators enforce NDAs for software vendors?

The ethical matter

This is a much broader topic, and one which has already been addressed here: Dealing with questions of nefarious intent

The short answer is, if there is consensus that someone is explicitly looking to do something that will cause harm to others, we should probably remove that question - either via offensive-flagging, down-voting + deletion, or editing into a more benign form; no one wants to be a part of a site that helps folks hurt folks.

But if it's not explicit, if there's a reasonable interpretation of the question that doesn't involve wishing to cause harm, then... Answer it, or let others do so. Do your best to lay out the pitfalls and strongly encourage those seeking a solution to find ways to do so without harming others, but don't damn the question because someone might eventually use an answer for evil. While you can and should try to dissuade someone from doing harm with the tools available to them, someone determined to do harm will always find a way.


Full disclosure: in my youth, I spent a lot of time writing mods and editors for the games that I played; more time than I actually spent playing them. I became a much better programmer from doing so than I ever would have otherwise, and frankly I think any game publisher that would try to restrict this sort of activity on the part of its users is inadvertently doing harm to the next generation. YMMV.

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This is a tricky question. The right policy might be site-specific, and might depend upon the particular situation. While many such questions might be dubious or problematic, I don't think it makes sense to have a blanket, StackExchange-wide policy that all such questions are always unwanted or prohibited.

Let me give you three examples from Ask Different, the StackExchange site for Apple-related questions:

  • The site allows questions about jailbreaking iOS. I'm pretty sure that jailbreaking iOS violates Apple's EULA, but the site still allows people to ask questions about jailbroken devices. I don't think it would be reasonable to adopt a policy that says, because jailbreaking violates Apple's TOS, therefore all such questions must be banned from Ask Different. (There might be other reasons to prohibit such questions, independent of the TOS status, but that's a separate issue.)

  • One issue we've run into is whether it is OK to ask questions about how to use Mac OS X inside a virtual machine running on Windows or Linux.

    Why would anyone possibly find that objectionable, you ask? I'm glad you asked! You see, the Apple EULA appears to prohibit running Mac OS X inside a VM on a non-Apple host operating system. So does that mean we should feel required to to ban all such questions? No, I don't think that would be healthy. I think it's healthier to allow the Ask Different community to work out a suitable policy on those sorts of questions.

    In the end, the community decided on a policy that allows such questions, but maybe not for the reason you would think: Can anyone point to a reason to ban virtualized OS on the site?

  • The Ask Different community used to prohibit questions about Hackintoshes. If you're not familiar with the term, that means running the Mac OS X operating system on non-Apple hardware. The community seems to have refined its stance and revised its position. People's views seem to be a bit nuanced, but it's not as simple as "Hackintoshes violate Apple's EULA and so any question related to Hackintoshes is prohibited"; it's more complicated than that. See Can one ask Hackintosh questions on Ask Different? and Should the help page remove the prohibition on hackintosh?.

As another example: the Security Stack Exchange site specifically allows and welcomes questions about attacks. It is not uncommon for questions or answers to describe attacks in considerable technical detail. Actually carrying out such an attack against someone is almost guaranteed to violate the TOS of the victim (if the victim has TOS). Yet it would be absolutely crazy for us to adopt a policy that says, all questions that describe attacks are off-topic because they contain a description of a method that would violate the target's TOS. Thinking about attacks is central to computer security. Before you can build a bridge that will stand up, you need to understand what makes bridges fail. Likewise, before you can build a computer system that will resist attack, you need to understand how it might be attacked and how other systems have been attacked. Banning all discussion of attacks would make no sense, on Security.SE.

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1. We won't help you jailbreak your device, but questions about the use of jailbroken devices are perfectly fine. Can you see the difference? –  Robert Harvey Dec 28 '13 at 6:52

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