There are two (so far) distinct topics that came up several times already and make me wary:

  • scraping and syndicating of sites;
  • PHP backdoors and kill switches.

Both can have perfectly legit uses and it is hard to judge on which side it falls when author doesn't care to explain purpose or details.

What is best approach for handling these?

From mild to harsh:

  1. Treat it as purely technical issue and give an answer.
  2. Give an answer, add warning about possible issues.
  3. Ask (demand?) clarification of intent before giving answer.
  4. Flag on sight for moderators to deal with.

Something else?

  • I have briefly read a question about questions and one on answers on MSO, and what I take from there is "You should also remember that nobody is obligated to answer questions. If you feel that answering the question may prove to be wrong ethically, nobody is going to twist your arm to answer it."
    – Jan Fabry
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 7:07
  • @Jan Fabry makes sense. I want to note that there is also answers part of issue - questionable stuff can not only be asked about but also posted proactively.
    – Rarst
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 8:16
  • Indeed, and in the case of a questionable answer I would be even more inclined to comment: a question with a bad answer can do more harm than a question with no answer.
    – Jan Fabry
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 8:23

3 Answers 3


Based on our experience on Stack Overflow, #3 is crucial

Ask (demand?) clarification of intent before giving answer.

This will also demonstrate rapidly if the asker is participating in good faith, e.g., do you want this person as a member of your community?

  • Understood. I am currently acting more as answer-and-warn 2, but I start to think explain-yourself-first 3 makes more sense.
    – Rarst
    Commented Jan 9, 2011 at 22:04

I'm against both 1 and 4.

Whether the individual asking the question has a legitimate reason or not, remember that the site is still indexed and scores very highly in Google. So answering a legitimate "how do I import all of the content form a blog I no longer have direct access to" question is still posting an answer to "how do I steal and re-post someone else's content" question. The person with the more nefarious question doesn't even need to ask since the solution is already posted.

As for let "the moderators deal with" it ... remember, this is a community site. We shouldn't ever sluff off responsibility to the moderators.

Personally, I'm more in favor of 3. But that doesn't guarantee that anyone will answer my request (demand?) for clarification, and it doesn't prevent a newcomer to the community from posting a solution hoping for quick reputation points.

A better (IMO) solution would be to demand clarification and lock the question until that clarification is given. If we're asking the OP for feedback, they should provide that feedback before any further action is taken on the question.

  • Maybe 4 is just to request a speedy deletion, which normal users can't do (I believe it takes two days after at is closed to get it deleted?). And I can imagine situations when your example question would still be a valid questions, so it's hard to tell these things. No solution will prevent others from answering a question, and locking prevents comments or question updates from the OP, so that wouldn't work.
    – Jan Fabry
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 7:28
  • As for let "the moderators deal with" it ... remember, this is a community site. We shouldn't ever sluff off responsibility to the moderators. Community moderations works, but it doesn't work fast. And sometimes - not ever there are still old posts floating around that been through several close attempts and every time it expired because of lack of votes. Of course community mass is improving, but if you want fast action then it's still up to moderators.
    – Rarst
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 8:38

Hi @Rarst:

My first thought is we could have an ethics policy where we identify and agree on those things we believe are unethical.

Then I would suggest we also have a policy where we ask people to explain their use-cases to help us understand their questions. I'm constantly asking for use-cases because I don't feel I can answer effectively without understanding what they are trying to achieve and my asking has nothing to do with ethics but it could help us with the ethics too.

Of course savvy people will fabricate a valid use-case but those same people will figure it out anyway.


P.S. Like I said, that's my first reaction. I could easily change my mind on this if something presents anything that recommends another approach.

  • Basically you are for mild 3, correct?
    – Rarst
    Commented Jan 9, 2011 at 20:32
  • @Rarst - Pretty much. But if we had a general policy to explain use-cases it wouldn't come across as challenging people, and it would kill two birds with one stone. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:31
  • I think creating an ethics policy will be very hard. People might have different opinions on what is ethical, and we would spend a lot of time setting something up that will be used in only a small number of cases. Asking for clarification should never be a problem, we do it many times when a question is vague (like not making clear why people want to do something, so we can propose a better solution). When you see something that you think can be illegal, ask about the intention in a comment. When you see something that probably is illegal (in your jurisdiction!), add a comment.
    – Jan Fabry
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 7:05
  • @Jan Fabry - A community can of course come up with what it's representative members thing is ethical. Without an ethics policy then it's just opinion and remedies will be applied arbitrarily and unevenly. And having a policy of asking for use-cases it orthogonal to an ethics policy so I see no debate concern there; we just need some posts here in meta that we can discuss and then point to. I'd start them now but not enough time right now. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 17:01
  • 1
    I read this as #2, and I pretty much agree. Part of answering a question is answering whether the community supports the practice in general and believes its ethical. Illegal may be stretching it too far, but saying something is bad practice, contrary to community feeling, or just plain evil is part of answering a question... Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 17:06

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