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There has been a lot of recent discussion over the Stack Exchange Code of Conduct - what it means, why it says what it does, and what it does and does not forbid. There is an additional document that has not gotten nearly as much attention - the "Public Network Terms of Service". Why is it necessary for us to have two different documents that define what is and what is not acceptable on the network?

The obvious answer is that the Terms of Service is intended for lawyers and the Code of Conduct for ordinary people, but the recent unpleasantness seems to have taught us:

  • The Code of Conduct itself has legal relevance.
  • Resolving things with openness, communication, and good faith is better than lawsuits.

To be clear, I'm not proposing any substantive changes in the rules, such as allowing something that's currently disallowed, disallowing something that's currently allowed, or changing current procedures, privileges, obligations, or penalties. What I'm proposing is that they all be defined in a single location, one that would preferably be expressed in clearer language rather than dense legalese.

For example, instead of this dense paragraph (from the Terms of Service):

You must be at least 13 years old to access or use the Network or Services, including without limitation to complete a Stack Overflow account registration. By accessing or using the Services or the Network in any manner, you represent and warrant that you are at least 13 years of age. If you are under 13 years old, you may not, under any circumstances or for any reason, access or use the Services or Network in any manner, and may not provide any personal information to or on the Services or Network (including, for example, a name, address, telephone number or email address).

We could phrase it in a "Code of Conduct" way:

Our network is only for those 13 and over. If you are under 13, don't participate here or provide any personal data. If you do, we may ban you and delete any data you provided.

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The Public Network Terms of Service are terms between the company and each individual who uses the network. The Code of Conduct has to do with how everyone treats each other.

It may make sense for the Terms to reference the Code of Conduct but, like the Acceptable Use Policy and the Privacy Policy, they shouldn't be in the Terms of Service itself.

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