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Stack Overflow is based on the genial ideology for all tech geeks and freaks: the information should be free. People there share technological insights for free, even if they've got to pay to get them. It's fantastic! And Stack Overflow is the black horse of the Stack Exchange Network.

Based on Stack Overflow's success, Stack Exchange team has started other sites, about other topics. However, they don't work as well. I've made a little rant about it. But it's primarily ideological: on the sites about Workplace or Expatriates, there are users who not only disbelieve in the concept of free information sharing, but also actively disturb it.

They mostly hate sharing information about law. Law is complicated, and lawyers are charging a lot. But in most cases, you don't need a lawyer but a simple fact. For example, in Germany, it's illegal for the landlord to go into the apartment you rent. If you simply know that fact, you can spare yourself much problems. And asking 'is X allowed/legal' is not asking about advice, it's asking about facts. Just like asking, 'what value does function x in framework y expect?'.

However, some people are afraid, that if such knowledge was shared, some people would lose their income. And they are taking actions that are killing the spirit of the information freedom. And, to my deep disappointment, the moderators are taking no actions because moderators are acting according to the 'spirit' of the site. And if that spirit is hostile to the geek ideology of 'information wants to be free', let it be so.

Why is it such a problem? Well, the legal aspects in programming can be normally ignored, but for example, on workplace, rental, immigration, almost everything is about the law. So every non-chatty question on workplace would touch legal issues. The same is for Expatriates. And many other sites are in proposal state, but I doubt they'll succeed under these circumstances.

What is causing this ideological inconsistency between various Stack Exchange sites? Aren't they operated by the same people? What allowed so few to enforce their rule that some information should be kept secret (and available only for money) although it is based on publicly available sources? And why has the resistance to them failed?

Well, on Stack Overflow everyone stating that, for example, every question about jQuery should be closed because it can be answered reading the documentation, W3 documents and source code would be burned alive... But on some other sites the geeks have capitulated...

I don't want to change anything because I don't believe it's possible under current circumstances, I want only to understand WHY.

And no, I don't care about downvotes anymore.

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    Some of the answers here might be of interest: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/89961/… This question could possibly be a duplicate of it too. – George Duckett Mar 9 '15 at 10:07
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    Do you have any evidence that this is the motivation behind closing legal questions? I would strongly suggest it isn't. – TRiG Mar 9 '15 at 10:35
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    After receiving 10 downvotes on the other question, perhaps you should consider rethinking a bit longer than an hour before asking the next question. – Keelan Mar 9 '15 at 11:17
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    This seems excessively long-winded and needlessly complicated. Is it possible that you could clarify what exactly the point you're trying to make is? – Doorknob Mar 9 '15 at 11:32
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    @Camil the previous was indeed pure rant. This one here does have some value since it's trying to discuss valid concerns and is given in a more clear way. That's what we got MSE for. – Shadow Wizard is Ear For You Mar 9 '15 at 11:52
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    Of course, but the pattern 'asks question - question is very badly received - asks new question on same issue' should ring some mental alarm bells. – Keelan Mar 9 '15 at 11:56
  • Just curious, did you get notification for @Trig's comment that was converted from the answer? – Shadow Wizard is Ear For You Mar 9 '15 at 12:16
  • @Camil. No, I see it as "ask a badly received question and trying to ask in a better tone and manner". – Shadow Wizard is Ear For You Mar 9 '15 at 12:17
  • So what's that edit button for again? – Keelan Mar 9 '15 at 13:57
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    I don't see any ideological inconsistency at all. Questions about legal matters are just as off-topic on Stack Overflow as they are many places on the network. Sites are free to determine what does and does not fit within their scope, and that has nothing to do with whether they feel information should be freely available. – Brad Larson Mar 9 '15 at 16:23
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    If you take legal advice from random anonymous people on the internet, you've got bigger problems than SE's policy on such. – user1228 Mar 9 '15 at 17:16
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I want to address this part of your question:

They mostly hate sharing information about law. Law is complicated, and lawyers are charging a lot. But in most cases, you don't need a lawyer but a simple fact. For example, in Germany, it's illegal for landlord to go into the apartment you rent. If you simply know that fact, you can spare yourself much problems. And asking 'is X allowed/legal' is not asking about advice, it's asking about facts. Just like asking, what value function x in framework y expects.

If someone on the Internet tells you "yes, x is legal" you do not know whether X is legal. You know that someone on the Internet thinks/claims that x is legal. That is worse than useless.

On Stack Overflow, you can test a solution to see whether it works. Questions that ask for something untestable will usually get closed as opinion-based. There is no way to test a legal statement safely.

On skeptics.stackexchange, we do allow questions asking about legal facts:

The requirements for answers to these questions are rather strict. Simply stating whether something is legal is not enough, you have to meticulously find and reference your sources, so that anyone can verify the answers for themselves. This is a lot of work, but without it you would get a ton of useless hearsay and misunderstood interpretations about the law.

So Stack Exchange does allow questions pertaining to law, under certain conditions. On most Stack Exchange sites, the requirements for a good answer are far less strict, and so legal question are not welcome everywhere.

  • So you suggest, that the sites that allow poor quality questions, doesn't allow legal questions because they are afraid of the mess they've done? It would match the facts.. Workplace is one of the sites with surplus of chatty, vague topics where everyone can add own 2 cents, and they have an allergy for well-defined questions with strict criteria (maybe because not everyone can answer them, like those 'hot' ones). The travel has better quality criteria, so there are much more legal questions. And Expatriates is split between those 2 groups. – Danubian Sailor Mar 10 '15 at 6:12
  • No, I am suggesting no such thing. I am not saying those sites "allow poor quality question", I am saying that most legal question would require an amount of work and dedication that would be stifling for most other types of questions. If you were to apply the strict requirements and rigorous enforcements of sceptics on stackoverflow, almost noone would be willing to answer questions; and rightly so,since such a level would be pretty pointlesss for programming questions you can test for yourself. Legal questions don't mix well with either practical or opinionated questions. – HugoRune Mar 10 '15 at 9:16
  • most legal questions require only citing a singe paragraph from some bill, since in most cases, people are not aware of them. But as I see it, it's not about effort, it's about evidence. If you're required to provide a background for your claims, it's easy to check the correctness of your answer. But if the site prefers giving life advices, they'll have mental problems with requiring evidence... – Danubian Sailor Mar 10 '15 at 11:11
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I think there are two main reasons for the fact that people don't like to answer legalistic questions. Personally, I will answer such questions without qualm if I think I can reasonably do so, but I don't claim to be representative of the majority.

Liability

In a number of ways, people don't want to be responsible for you. There's the obvious "I don't want to get sued" aspect, but I don't think that's the dominant force at play. Would a judge really take seriously a suit which is essentially "this random user on the internet gave me advice and it turns out they had no idea what they were talking about"? I hope not, though I suppose equally silly sounding lawsuits have been given credence before. Realistically, how would you get the information to actually file suit against a user (the minority who are open about their identity aside)? You would (I hope) need to get a court order applied to SE.

Which brings me to my next point: perhaps people are concerned that SE itself would end up in trouble for being seen as dispensing or enabling the distribution of unqualified or unlicensed legal advice. Practising law is regulated for a reason, and unauthorized practice is a real thing with real consequences. LegalAdvice.SE would never fly, and maybe people want to make sure that not even the appearance of this exists.

However, I think the main liability people want to avoid is a moral one. Most people on SE answer questions because they want to help and share information, but giving out legal advice is putting on the big boy pants. Nobody wants to post an answer which sounds good but ends up costing someone else a lot of money, or worse, lands them in jail. This is the impetus, I believe, for prefacing posts with "I am not a lawyer" (not being a lawyer isn't a shield against a credible UPL allegation; indeed, admitting it would be evidence against you). It's a shorthand way of saying "look, I want to help out, but you need to understand that there's a very good chance I don't know what I'm talking about, so if you want to be sure, you should ask someone who does this for a living. Use my advice at your own risk."

Because other people do it

Frankly, I think this is the driving force behind vast quantities of human behaviour. People see that others - especially if they're esteemed members of the community - frown on, discourage or disclaim posts approaching legal advice. They ask themselves why and come up with plausible rationalizations, and so they think, "Well, that's reasonable enough, and it's apparently how things are done here; I'll go along with the crowd." Thus a feedback loop gets created and group norms are established. Perfectly ordinary human behaviour. Obviously this can't be the sole reason, but I think it's a very significant contributor.

At the end of the day, we're all supposed to be reasonable, mature people here, so sometimes the way legal issues get treated can seem like hyper-cautiousness or overreaction. But there are two realities about large groups of humans that we must understand: a lot of them are actually unreasonable in one way or another, and a lot of them prefer being safe over being sorry.

  • prefer being safe over being sorry spot on, for me anyway - I will not put myself or anyone I am helping in a situation that potentially could get nasty if the wrong or incomplete advice was given - that is my only motivation to frown on legal based questions. – user273376 Mar 9 '15 at 11:41
  • You've given the extreme examples, but they are adequate only in extreme situations. Most real-life situations are not about prison or death, but simply what's allowed and what's not. The lawyers are expensive and it's the reason most people won't use them, until they are quite sure, the law is on their site. In most cases only knowing that you have some rights is enough. For example, landlord won't make a pressure on you letting him inspect your appartment if he knows you know it's illegal. – Danubian Sailor Mar 9 '15 at 12:42
  • @ВГД This is speculation on others' motivations. I don't think anyone really believes someone is going to end up sued or imprisoned over an SE post. It's more about conscience, ethics and appearances. We hold our users to a high standard here and we must consider that posts are visible to the entire internet. A lot of people are unreasonable can mean someone is unreasonably afraid of posting legal advice but also some random goober might pop in and start drama about this, even though the rest of us are having a civil discussion. For whatever reason, people consider this a touchy subject. – Esoteric Screen Name Mar 10 '15 at 0:51
  • @EsotericScreenName exactly the same applies to all other sites. So why you, for example, use SO? – Danubian Sailor Mar 10 '15 at 6:09
  • @ВГД You're right, it does apply to any SE site. Maybe less legal questions get asked on SO. Maybe you don't see them because there's a huge volume of questions there or they get quickly closed and deleted. Maybe you're suffering from selection bias. To be honest, I suspect it's that last one. – Esoteric Screen Name Mar 10 '15 at 11:02
  • @EsotericScreenName you're for sure an inteligent guy so why you pretend the opposite? It's a pure demagogy now. I've written clearly, that it applies to other sites (with other topics) as well. On SO someone can also post bad advice that would hurt crucial code. – Danubian Sailor Mar 10 '15 at 11:07
  • @ВГД I don't think I understand what you mean by "it applies to other sites"; what is "it"? People can certainly post bad coding advice, but testing it out is generally less risky than legal advice. More importantly, giving legal advice (even for something clear cut and straightforward, such as your landlord example) feels different from giving coding advice, and I think that makes a big difference to most people. – Esoteric Screen Name Mar 10 '15 at 11:14
  • @EsotericScreenName I don't understand what differences you see. Both can be easily tested. Code by compiling, legal status by checking reference. The only difference is, code can be tested by self, so no external reference is needed, and the answer to legal question must cite the appropriate paragraph on which it is based. Then everyone can prove it. And why do you persist on using the word advice which is inappropriate here? If I ask what rights I have I ask about the facts, not about the advice! – Danubian Sailor Mar 10 '15 at 11:20
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[Edit: Since the OP has removed the word ideology from the title of the post, if not from the body, I've redacted my discussion of that word. The interested Reader can of course consult the Edit History.]

You are right in distinguishing (I think) between a question that asks for advice and one that merely asks what the law is, say regarding tenant rights. However in generalizing the concern you overlook the fact that laws are tremendously localized subject matter, more so than software, mathematics, or even religion, all of which may be treated with a fairly global perspective.

There are non-SE sites which can provide the kind of factual information about what the law says, often curated by lawyers admitted to the bar in particular jurisdictions. The SE philosophy is geared toward high-quality content of lasting value, and where the laws which change from year to year, this becomes quite a challenge (even for law libraries). A continuous process of curation is needed to eliminate obsolete information.

Of course there are differences in SE Communities with respect to philosophy and policy, but in respect of the "information wants to be free" meme, I think you'll find consistency. For example, the Creative Commons with Attribution license applies across the board here.

Note also the Area 51 Proposal: Law, roughly half way into the Commitment phase, and the non-beta Ask Patents SE site, although it is something of a special case as a pet project.

I think the contrasting of SO's willingness to provide technical information about programming with reluctance of much smaller sites (Workplace and Expatriates are specifically mentioned) to entertain Questions requiring legal research is a false comparison. You will find I suspect similar reluctance at SO to entertain Questions that involve legal research. Of course in modern society the law intrudes on many aspects of life, and it is well to keep that in mind in giving advice that might inadvertently lead to transgressions.

I also think the counterargument posed in Comments below, that it is simply a matter of adding enough tags to differentiate jurisdictions is missing the mark. A tag should be used to denote what a Question is about, at least across the range of SE sites I'm familiar with, not topics it might tangentially be related to. Classifications within all SE sites as to legal jurisdictions and timeframes would amount to serious pollution of the tag namespace.

  • Well, the laws are localized to the given country. But the operators are localized to the given programming language. And it doesn't stop SO from being successful site, although answers about JAVA doesn't answer questions about PHP. So the "localized" meme doesn't make sense in that case. – Danubian Sailor Mar 9 '15 at 15:11
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    @ВГДЕЖЅZЗИІКЛМНОПҀРСТȢѸФХ Laws aren't specific to just countries. Regions within countries, municipalities within regions, international laws, cases where jurisdiction is in question (and there are any number of ways that this can come up, with any number of possible resolutions), cases where the laws of multiple countries/regions/other apply, etc. makes this as much more complicated. And because of all of this, just determining whether or not a particular factually correct legal question/answer does in fact apply to your case is often a non-trivial problem (meriting its own question). – Servy Mar 9 '15 at 15:16
  • @Servy laws may be regional, but at first is very rare, and the second, it applies only to peanuts, and not general things like labour law. The community may decide the height of dog tax, and not 'higher' things. International private law may apply to civil contract, but if you're employed in the same country you live, only internal law applies. So you're overtheoretizing just to make your point. If any of that cases apply, one can always write it in answer. In 95-99% of questions it's not the case. – Danubian Sailor Mar 9 '15 at 15:22
  • If the only localization of laws were to a given country (there are something less than 200 in the world), then perhaps your point would have more force. However law exists on finer and coarser scales (districts and commonwealths), and while it is indeed easier to create a new programming language than a new country, what SO does is respond to Questions that "real users ask", which effectively restricts the number of language-specific aspects and promotes cross-platform advice when this is possible. Programming is indeed an idealized world for the mind to explore. – hardmath Mar 9 '15 at 15:23
  • @ВГДЕЖЅZЗИІКЛМНОПҀРСТȢѸФХ So you're saying the scope of the legal questions that you personally are interested in has a narrow enough scope to not be a problem, and that the rest of the legal issues that exist simply aren't of interest to you, so it's not a problem? – Servy Mar 9 '15 at 15:31
  • @Servy from where did you read this? Or you're simply suggesting that Q&A formula is not adaptable to legal matters, such as labour law? I don't think the formula is not good, I think it was made broken, which is rendering Workplace useless for any serious questions (more serious then "how to stop coworker drinkin from my cup). But it was not deemed to be useless, it was made useless. There are for sure better places in internet to ask. – Danubian Sailor Mar 9 '15 at 15:38
  • @hardmath and where's the problem? It's only the problem of proper tagging. There are hundred of JavaScript libraries, for example. And many of them are so niche you're unlikely to get any answer. However, jQuery is very popular. – Danubian Sailor Mar 9 '15 at 15:40
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    @ВГДЕЖЅZЗИІКЛМНОПҀРСТȢѸФХ You've said that regional and municipal laws apparently only determine things that you consider "peanuts", and therefore aren't important enough for you to care about. And just because you're only interested in cases only ever involving a single country, and not multiple countries or international laws, doesn't mean nobody else is even in such a situation. And if you're saying that all of these types of issues are on topic then this all goes back to the topics being "too localized". – Servy Mar 9 '15 at 15:44
  • You are right in distinguishing (I think) between a question that asks for advice and one that merely asks what the law is - good call. The latter question can be answered with a simple quotation from a current primary source. It would be better to explain such an answer, but it isn't strictly required. Unlike the former, which demands explanation and speculation. – Esoteric Screen Name Mar 10 '15 at 0:56
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Asking "why isn't everything free" is not being realistic, hopefully for obvious reasons.

Lawyers will never be replaced by answers from StackExchange. A majority of the value of hiring a lawyer is the documentation they produce for their clients. The documents are involved and often each firm has their own set of them they use, and these you will not find online. They are essentially intellectual property, and the price paid for them is related to the amount of time it required to produce and maintain them - very similar to software. Except when you ask software questions, you ask about minutia because no one is going to write a full fledged library for you here.

If you need a full fledged library, perhaps you should hire a developer. If you need a customized legal document with regards to specific law, perhaps you should hire a lawyer.

The ideology is pretty standard across all the sites really. Yes, users will help you if you are having issues with a specific problem. No, users will not service requests for work in any context (unless they are feeling generous).

  • Nobody says about replacing the lawyers. And your post applies to SO as well. Just replace 'lawyer' with 'programmer' and read it again. But it doesn't matter, legal questions are generally allowed, as HugoRune has written, only the sites with overly poor quality like Workplace won't allow them because not everyone can answer them. We're discussing in vain. You stand on your head to find arguments why don't cows eat leaves, while the answer is, they can't climb the trees. – Danubian Sailor Mar 10 '15 at 6:17
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    @ВГДЕЖЅZЗИІКЛМНОПҀРСТȢѸФХ - Your rant focuses on lawyers, and you state "some people are afraid, that if such knowledge was shared, some people would lose their income." to which I point out that it is highly unlikely people such as lawyers will lose their income. Perhaps instead of ranting wildly you should start working on being more focused. – Travis J Mar 10 '15 at 15:28
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However, some people are afraid that, if such knowledge was shared, some people would loose their income.

Ah, a mind-reader. Do you have any evidence that this is the motivation behind closing legal questions? I would strongly suggest that it isn’t.

Many Stack Exchange sites explicitly define legal questions as off topic, not to protect the incomes of lawyers, but because legal advice is a tricky topic. Offering legal advice without a licence can actually get people into trouble. And following legal advice from unknown people on a forum* is dicey behaviour.

In other words, I dispute the central premise of your question. These questions are not off topic to protect people’s incomes. They are off topic because the sites in question have decided they are unsafe to have on topic.

Some Stack Exchange sites do deal with some legal issues.

  • Questions about software licensing are on topic at Programmers.

  • Skeptics allows some legal questions.

  • Travel fields lots of questions about visa requirements, and some questions about customs legislation.


* Yes, Stack Exchange sites are fora, in the broad sense of the word.

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