What should we do on this SE in regards to answers that suggest potentially criminal actions?

For example, on the recent question How to make a friend stop joking about (non-existing) relationship between other friend and me? one of the answers suggests covertly recording a private conversation. In many jurisdictions, such an action can be a criminal offense, including in the jurisdiction of the person asking the question in this case.

In this particular instance, the OP was in Germany, which has the following law:

Section 201 Violation of the Confidentiality of the Spoken Word

(1) Whoever, without authorization:

  1. makes an audio recording of the privately spoken words of another; or

  2. uses, or makes a recording thus produced accessible to a third party,

shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.

Section 201 of the German Criminal Code

In this particular situation, another user left the comment:

I am not an expert on this by any means, but secretly recording John may be illegal and could get the OP into trouble.

which seems appropriate enough and had some upvotes, though the answerer then responded:

You're right, you are not an expert. Unless in specific cases where you are dealing with sensitive information there is nothing illegal about recording someone when you are party to the conversation especially when it is for the purpose of documenting someone harassing you as evidence to use in court or to give to HR.

Aside from the answerer's response being incorrect, the entire comment thread was moved to chat, where it might be missed by someone reading the answer.

In general, how should this be handled on this SE, assuming the answerer didn't include any sort of legal warning/disclaimer in the answer? Should we:

  • Flag to have a moderator attach a note to the answer with something along the lines of "You should consult a lawyer competent in the relevant jurisdiction before doing this?"

  • Only comment and downvote and hope the comments don't get moved to chat?

  • Edit the answer to include a warning without the answerer's permission?

  • Do nothing and allow the answer to remain as-is with suggestions for potentially criminal action?

  • Something else?

Related: There is another meta thread concerning another answer where a potentially illegal action was suggested, though that meta didn't appear to reach any conclusion about what specifically to do about the suggestion of a potentially criminal action.

  • 5
    I'd suggest against quoting (or cherrypicking) such laws unless you are a lawyer yourself. A funny thing about laws is that sometimes somewhere later, the same law would speak about exceptions. Regardless, I see your point. Good question.
    – NVZ
    Oct 24, 2017 at 18:14
  • @NVZ Yeah, that's frequently true. That's why I said potentially criminal and suggested a disclaimer along the lines of "You should consult a lawyer competent in the relevant jurisdiction before doing this." It's actually not criminal where I personally live, though, for professional reasons, I've needed to be familiar with the laws in various jurisdictions on this particular topic.
    – reirab
    Oct 24, 2017 at 19:28
  • When I first clicked the title of this question, I thought you were going to be asking about this answer that recommend assault: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/5840/59
    – apaul
    Oct 24, 2017 at 22:40
  • @apaul I guess that one must have been deleted. I can't see it. I didn't see one recommending assault or I'd have mentioned that, too.
    – reirab
    Oct 24, 2017 at 23:51
  • It was deleted shortly after I made the comment.
    – apaul
    Oct 24, 2017 at 23:58
  • There's the question about "might" be criminal vs what is criminal. For instance, a post recommending violence/theft/perjury should be taken down -those are acts that are illegal pretty much everywhere. For things that are illegal based solely on jurisdiction, merely a flag would be a good idea. Nov 7, 2017 at 1:17
  • @reirab As in some places it is legal to record, that kind of advice should typically come with a disclaimer. Don't see one in the answer? Post a comment with it based on your knowledge to help improve the answer and the site as a whole.
    – RandomUs1r
    Feb 28, 2018 at 23:09

4 Answers 4


Until a few hours ago, there was no indication of where the OP is. This answer was posted before the OP commented with their location - Germany. Before then, we had no way of knowing where they were, including when that answer was written. This is part of why we try to get users to tag or at least mention their location in their question as some answers may be inappropriate for some areas.

It's sort of impossible for all answers to be useful to all people in all countries, which is why it's probably better for us to close some questions until we have location detail. It's good for an answer to note "This may be illegal where you are, so check into that before you do it" but that requires that the person writing the answer be aware that it's illegal in some places. Heck, a lot of people do illegal things even knowing they're illegal. I'm not saying it justifies it but we're not a legal site. Everything here comes with the disclaimer "Follow this advice at your own risk" and having arguments about the legality of something simply won't fly here.

If you want to write a comment containing this note (or something similar), feel free to do so:

This solution may work in some places but it's illegal in others, so anyone considering this advice should check local regulations before following it.

Starting a discussion in comments, particularly when the location is unknown, is... less than useful. Additional bickering makes the entire chain of discussion at risk of being moved to chat, as this one was.

I've reinstated the first comment on the answer, which does act as a notice/alert, to act as a reminder but the rest of the comment chain is unnecessary. Twelve comments arguing something that one comment already says is too much. And this applies to both sides, which is why the OP's comments were also removed.

I am not an expert on this by any means, but secretly recording John may be illegal and could get the OP into trouble. – Anne Daunted 21 hours ago

Please remember, though, to vote... Votes are more valuable than comments and they tell others whether a solution is good or bad. If an answer has a low score compared to others, then people are less likely to use it.

  • Yes, I was aware that no jurisdiction was originally mentioned, which is why my original comment to Crash before a particular jurisdiction was mentioned just said that Anne's comment was correct in some jurisdictions, including some U.S. states. Certainly, not being aware that something is illegal in some jurisdictions is understandable, but continuing to state that it isn't once that's been pointed out isn't so helpful.
    – reirab
    Oct 24, 2017 at 19:45
  • At any rate, I think Anne's comment will be fine if left as is. Thanks for undeleting it.
    – reirab
    Oct 24, 2017 at 19:53
  • 1
    Sure :D I'm happy to address this sort of thing any time... We have a habit of deleting everything because it's easier but sometimes a notice like that is valuable to have. Hopefully this will be a valuable discussion for future questions/answers. Fortunately, the way the system works, it's pretty easy to add back comments that were deleted, as long as the user who posted them wasn't the person who deleted them.
    – Catija
    Oct 24, 2017 at 19:56
  • 10
    Votes are more valuable than comments... In this particular case, the one comment was more valuable than all the votes. The average user might have thought the proposed answer is a great one, but one comment by a well-informed reader made clear that the suggested course of action could put OP in jail, and that the answer is thus actually terrible. (That's why I propose caution when moving comments to chat. Sometimes "swarm intelligence" is really quite dumb, and comments carry more information than votes.)
    – user510
    Oct 25, 2017 at 15:24
  • This is also a situation where, in addition to the comment, any user could edit a note into the question: "(check to see if this is legal in your jurisdiction first)". Oct 28, 2017 at 21:16
  • 1
    I think that somebody should post a question asking for a custom post notice like your first blockquote.
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 29, 2017 at 13:48
  • 2
    OP's location is actually not alone relevant. The point of SE is that other people may profit from questions answered here. If a thing is suggested that violates laws in many locations, it's relevant even if OP's location isn't one of them. Although I cannot say how many locations is actually many... Nov 4, 2017 at 23:45

I don't think IPS.Se should be the arbiter of what is and isn't legal and what should and shouldn't be allowed as an answer as a result.

I think that people have their own responsibility to not do illegal things, but it's still helpful to point out something like this in a comment. The first comment before it was moved to chat was pretty nice about this, and an answer could start with ...

This may be illegal depending on where you live, so definitely check first.

On the other hand, don't go around giving outright legal advice about what is and isn't illegal in SE posts, for obvious reasons.

  • 4
    Yes, the author putting a disclaimer recommending to seek legal advice in the relevant jurisdiction in the answer would be the ideal situation, IMO. Unfortunately, that didn't happen in this case, which is why I posed the question here. A comment works so long as it remains prominently visible, but comments on SE aren't really meant to remain prominently visible. At this point, I think Anne's comment will be fine for this particular case, but if an answer had a lot of unrelated comments (especially if they were upvoted,) a comment warning might not be readily evident.
    – reirab
    Oct 27, 2017 at 15:28
  • @reirab Again this is not a legal forum so why would I be including legal advice in my answers?
    – J.Snow
    Oct 29, 2017 at 17:58

The disclaimer is by far the best solution. There are already similar disclaimers on other sites:

  • Skeptics.SE has disclaimer for answers that contain original research instead of referenced information
  • Worldbuilding has, I think, some disclaimer/note for answers that are not detailed enough. Although I'm not sure about this one.

So clearly disclaimers have a place in SE community as a way to mark answers that are valid answers but with objections.

I'd use this:

Actions suggested by this answer may violate laws in certain locations. Please consult a lawyer in your locality about taking them.

Although it does make the answer look a little bit scary.

  • There was a meta question last month whether we need standard disclaimers on Interpersonal.SE -- according to Community Manager Robert Cartaino's answer, we don't need disclaimers because we are not giving professional advice anyway. See here: interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1901/… Nov 5, 2017 at 0:06
  • 1
    @EnglishStudent That question was talking about a blanket disclaimer for the whole site about answers not being professional advice; this answer proposes having a custom banner that can be added to particular answers when specific advice in the answer is questionable.
    – 1006a
    Nov 5, 2017 at 0:29
  • Although Robert Cartaino felt no disclaimers are necessary in general for IPS.SE, "a custom banner that can be added to particular answers when specific advice in the answer is questionable" seems a reasonable and useful option. Since all sorts of advice can get posted here, we should seriously consider the matter of a short custom disclaimer and try to adopt it as site policy, thanks for pointing out @1006a. Nov 5, 2017 at 0:48
  • @EnglishStudent I don't think you only need disclaimer in professional advice though. Disclaimer is simply a warning that there bad thing may happen if you use piece of information incorrectly (eg. all the "do not try at home" disclaimers) Nov 5, 2017 at 1:59
  • Such type of disclaimer also reminds members that they should apply any suggested solution only at their own well considered discretion and on their own responsibility @Tomáš Zato. In order to take this good idea the next step forward, you should post a specific meta question to generate community consensus on the need for such disclaimer and also to frame the best way to write the disclaimer message. Nov 5, 2017 at 9:21

There was nothing in my comment that advised towards criminal actions (I am the person OP is referring to). And I reject any insinuation as such. Your reference to me advising someone to "covertly record a private conversation" is intentionally misleading and disingenuous.

You are still trying to give legal advice on here which is not appropriate. Also I don't see how questions regarding legal issues are relevant to this forum.

Again I reject any insinuation that I was suggesting someone to commit criminal actions. You are not a legal professional.

  • 5
    "If you can predict when it's going to happen you should start recording him discretely on multiple occasions with your phone so you can show the evidence to HR." Discreetly recording is illegal in some places, I think that's what the point of all of this was. Also your answer wasn't the only time this specific issue has come up on the site.
    – apaul
    Oct 29, 2017 at 20:36
  • I still stand by my comment. There was nothing I said that advised someone towards criminal action. There may be some places where recording people in certain ways is illegal. But most places you will find that recording your own conversations is not. But we would really need to know the specifics. Your claim that discreetly recording is illegal is a very ambiguous one and untrue in many/most cases. The problem is that people are making too many ambiguous assumptions based on the opinion I gave and jumping to false conclusions. I still think my answer was good general advice for anyone.
    – J.Snow
    Oct 31, 2017 at 14:42
  • Except for the fact that this was a situation between friends with no HR person to take a recoding to?
    – apaul
    Oct 31, 2017 at 14:45
  • Also nobody has explained how asking about legal-issues are relevant to this forum? I thought this was for interpersonal issues?? Since when are IPS legal experts? So people disagree with me that legal advice is not appropriate for this interpersonal issues forum? Hmm...
    – J.Snow
    Oct 31, 2017 at 14:48
  • 1
    Honestly the potential legal aspect is tangential, but a warning that a proposed solution could land you in trouble is worthwhile...
    – apaul
    Oct 31, 2017 at 14:51
  • @apaul Yes I know, the poster later updated her question with more details after I answered which I addressed in the comments in my original answer. It's easy to criticise a previous answer after a question has been updated with more specifics. When the issue was first posted a lot of context was unclear. That's why I gave a general answer and mentioned HR because it sounded like it might be a work issue.
    – J.Snow
    Oct 31, 2017 at 14:56
  • @apaul I think if I had known more of the specifics up front I could have given a more precise answer. But I do think a site-wide warning or disclaimer might be a good idea, maybe on the home-page not to take any answers as legal advice or that IPS is not responsible for legal matters and that to check your own country's laws.
    – J.Snow
    Oct 31, 2017 at 15:01
  • 1
    A site wide warning probably isn't necessary because it isn't something that happens all that often. When it does happen, people usually just drop a comment to give others a heads up. Which is kinda what happened in this case...
    – apaul
    Oct 31, 2017 at 15:04
  • There was a meta question last month whether we need standard disclaimers on Interpersonal.SE -- according to Community Manager Robert Cartaino's answer, we don't need disclaimers because we are not giving professional advice anyway. See here: interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1901/… Nov 5, 2017 at 0:12

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