I got an email from a company asking me to use my established reputation to recommend their product on Stack Overflow:

Hello Oli!

My name is [withheld], and I’m Sales & Marketing Manager in [withheld]. I found your contacts on stackoverflow.com. We are impressed with your activity on this website. Our company would appreciate if you could help us to promote our tool and services on it.

We would be grateful if you could post a few answers mentioning our company’s name, tool or services. Can this collaboration be interesting to you? Under what conditions would you agree to do this?

I look forward to your reply.

Best Regards,

Sales & Marketing Manager

The comments have got somewhat bogged down in a copyright sidebar (probably totally my fault) and somebody has also reported the company on MSO so for the benefit of the network, it would be good to discuss what users should do if they're contacted like this.

  • Should we yell about it on the relevant meta site?
  • Isn't all PR good PR?
  • And couldn't public report be abused (competing companies reporting each other for abuse, various litigation against the reporter, etc)
  • Or should this be handled in private directly with SE Inc?

This isn't the first solicitation through my SE profile I've had (I've just binned them up to now) and I'm certain other people are getting similar things. I feel like there should be a well reasoned policy on what to do in the event that another person is trying to coerce you into making Stack Exchange worse.

  • Just say no. It's an outside communication; Stack Exchange can't do anything about it. – user102937 Oct 20 '14 at 14:47
  • I'd reply with a link to stackoverflow.com/help/advertising and then forget all about it. – yannis Oct 20 '14 at 14:48
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    I'd happily hang out their dirty laundry on Meta Stack Overflow (e.g. not withhold the company name) to make users aware that someone is trying to astroturf their product. That way the community can look out for the activity and nip it in the bud. And it should act as a deterrent against any other company thinking to buy exposure like this. – Martijn Pieters Oct 20 '14 at 14:52
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    @MartijnPieters I wasn't sure about that on two fronts: Would I become liable for sharing the content of a private direct email? Legal examples. And isn't any PR good PR? – Oli Oct 20 '14 at 15:10
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    @Oli: The 'copyright infringement' defense is easily countered by quoting only parts, rather than post the whole email as is; that would fall firmly under fair use. You may have a point about the PR issue, it is something to weigh up. Past cases of astroturfing exposed did harm the credibility of the perpetrators however. And the goal should be to maintain Stack Overflow post quality and integrity here, and that may outweigh the potential PR effects for the company. – Martijn Pieters Oct 20 '14 at 15:22
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    @Oli: Also, consider the Streisand effect: if said company tried to bury the evidence by issuing a copyright infringement claim (say, via a DMCA takedown notice) the resulting storm on Reddit / Slashdot / etc. could easily cost the company considerable goodwill. – Martijn Pieters Oct 20 '14 at 15:24
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    People actually claim copyright over their emails as a defense against being outed for spamming? That's a laugh. Not unlike issuing DMCA takedown notices against folks who post negative things about your product. – user102937 Oct 20 '14 at 15:48
  • @cVplZ What if it actually answers the question? – MTL Oct 20 '14 at 16:17
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    @MartijnPieters: their laundry has been hung out to dry already – Mat Oct 20 '14 at 17:34
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    Something tells me the people who bite on this might not be the best "under the radar" spammers-by-proxy ;) – Andrew Barber Oct 20 '14 at 18:06
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    Why would you be liable for copyright infringement for posting the entire email, but not for creating a "derivative work" that just replaces a few words with [withheld]? – jscs Oct 20 '14 at 18:55
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    This post is a criticism/discussion of the work so it would be covered by fair use in any event, i'd think. (I also find it absurd to imagine a judge finding in their favor in this case. Judges aren't total idiots, and aren't bound by the letter of the law if the law isn't completely clear that it should apply, which it certainly isn't. But of course that requires money and time...) – Joe Oct 20 '14 at 20:15
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    You can report on an email sent to you, quoting it is fair use as criticism, especially since you are not commercially benefiting from having quoted it. You should fully attribute the author, though. It is unlikely that they registered the content as copyright, so they would have to show that using it directly affected them financially and that you would have reasonably concluded that you did not have permission to repost it. That's an uphill battle, as you have no relationship with them of any kind. One cannot use the fact that an email was sent to a person to bind that person into a contract – Chris Oct 20 '14 at 20:31
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    I feel like we've fallen down a copyright hole. I merely didn't want to attract litigation by posting all the details publicly because people do abuse copyright law and the systems around it. With that in mind, it would be good if we could clamber out and generate some solutions for what people should do if they're contacted like this. Should we report them? To whom? Public disclosure? Etc etc. – Oli Oct 21 '14 at 15:18

I'd happily hang out their dirty laundry on Meta Stack Overflow (e.g. not withhold the company name) to make users aware that someone is trying to astroturf their product. That way the community can look out for the activity and nip it in the bud. And it should act as a deterrent against any other company thinking to buy exposure like this.

Don't worry about 'copyright infringement' claims on the email. A redacted and summarised email is already no longer a full-on copy of the original and fair use should apply there.

And don't worry about 'any PR' being 'good PR' here. Someone else posted the same email to Meta.SO with the company name intact, and as a result the community has cleared out all remaining references to the product name and is in the process replacing all links to company pages. Clearly, this action is resulting in no mentions of the company at all.

In fact, that Meta.SO page is now a top Google hit for the company name, listed right below the company homepage and social media pages. Great PR, having the first hit for your name outside pages you control be an expose on how you tried to buy your way to astroturfed PR.

If you feel that by sticking your neck out you'll end up getting nastigrams from said company, at the very least forward the email to the Stack Exchange team. The team can then handle it from there. Spamming-by-proxy is still spamming and the team appreciates getting a heads-up on potential problems ahead of time. Also see Tim Post's response on Meta.SO.

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    And if you don't want to make a public thing out of this, it can't hurt to ping a moderator, flag and mention this, or pass these emails along to the SE team. We have used stuff like this to watch for potentially problematic spammers in the past. If someone's offering to pay for posting links on SE sites, someone should be made aware of that. – Brad Larson Oct 21 '14 at 15:57
  • @BradLarson: added a paragraph about that. – Martijn Pieters Oct 21 '14 at 15:59
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    @BradLarson actually, recently posted answer in that MSO post recommends contacting SE to report a fraud – gnat Oct 21 '14 at 16:44

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