Do you filter the help you give online?

I’m a moderator on the Ubuntu Forums, and we have a policy about log-in-as-root tutorials (especially logging in as root graphically), which is basically that they’re banned. We don’t let people post instructions for logging in as root graphically. You can read here about the justification for that.

It’s a little odd, though. I’m in favor of the policy, but I also know that if someone does a simple Google search, she can find instructions for logging in as root graphically in Ubuntu. So we’re not, with our policy, preventing people from logging in as root. We’re simply not helping them to do it. Does that matter?

I don’t know if it does, but I still refuse to help people do what I think they shouldn’t be doing. I filter my help. I love helping people out. The internet is a wonderful place, because I help tens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people I don’t even know by just typing a few sentences.

If, however, I get the impression someone is trying to get me to do her homework for her, I say “Do your own homework.” Of course, I could be inadvertently doing someone else’s homework for her—someone who’s clever enough to rephrase the question instead of copying the homework question verbatim into an online forum. I don’t know if I am.

Likewise, if someone says “I forgot the password to my computer. How do I get in?” I don’t know if that person is a kid who’s trying to find out her parent’s password to get around a parental filter. And I don’t have a foolproof method of thwarting malicious password cracking requests, but I generally tell people how to reset the password instead of telling them how to crack the password (even though I know how you can crack passwords). If you reset a password, you have access, but the person who used to have that password knows you have access, since the old password no longer works. If, however, you crack the password, you could stealthily be using that person’s account without her knowing it.

Do you filter out your help? Or do you figure information is so easy to find that if you don’t tell someone how to crack a password, she’ll just do a Google search and find it herself? Does it matter who pulls the trigger or not if the trigger gets pulled?


  1. I’ll filter the help in the ways you mentioned, sure. Number one, of course it matters who pulls the trigger. It’s easy for high school kids to get booze, but that doesn’t mean I’ll make liquor runs for them. Number two, if they were capable/savvy enough to run a Google search for whatever they’re looking for, they wouldn’t be posting on a forum asking an easily Googleable question. So you might actually be preventing them from doing something bad/dangerous.

  2. I think in a situation like this, complete freedom of speech isn’t appropriate (such as yelling fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire). The information may be out there, but by not condoning the action, hopefully she will understand that that information should not be used lightly

  3. It is the sort of question you can answer with sudo (or activating a root terminal in the main menu which is in plain sight) or ask them ‘Why?’

    Why WOULD I want to log in as root if I can sudo it? or use the terminal provided?

    The same goes for similar situations.
    The question ‘why?’ as first respondent to any such questions usually should flag a warning to other potential respondents that maybe they should wait and see the OP’s reasons before jumping in with a smart ‘I am l33t, I know the answer to that one… ‘ response.

    (Sorry, Teacher. That sentence was far too long :) )

    Ubuntucat, I think you are getting old and paranoid…(like me!)

  4. Answering your question in the title of your post…

    I would normally avoid replying at all to such posts and move on elsewhere…

  5. Ubuntucat,

    While I can understand, in part, your motivation, I disagree with it strongly.

    That attitude is one of the reasons I pretty much left the Ubuntu forae.

    Way back, I was involved in Tek-Tips … was credited with nearly single-handedly saving it from dying by the then owner. Reason I left was the elitism that started creeping into the various discussion arenas … same reason I seldom visit the Ubuntu discussions.

    My expertise at that time was in Visual Basic, and I responded to a lot of queries about VB.
    My rule for answering was in this light:
    *answer the question _as it was asked_ to the best of my ability;
    *if, I thought there was a better way, or the questioner was on the wrong approach, _then_ suggest an alternative answer/method;
    *if I thought the question/answer dangerous, i.e., your password cracking example, I’d ask for more background data, usually along the lines of, “Their are several ways to answer your question as written – if you’ll provide more information, I can better give you the answer that you need.”

    But, always, answer the question asked or ask for more information,.

    When elitiism creeps in and egos swell, answers become less helpful, if at all, and frequently devolve to RTFM, or are couched in a demeaning manor.

    Several times have I been told, in the various Ubuntu forae, how to resolve a question via CLI when the question was how to do it via GUI. The automatic assumption was that I didn’t know how to do it CLI-style. So I didn’t get an answer to the question I asked, I got preached at (which is different than being preached to).

    Particularly when I asked how to perform GUI operations as root, I was laughed at, demeaned, yelled at … and not once helped.

    And the RTFMs … why assume that the questioner didn’t? Hey, just becaues [generic] you can RTFM and properly interpret what you read, that doesn’t mean the questioner can do the same. That’s partly a matter of intuition, partly a matter of experience, and partly a matter of luck. We don’t all have the same measure of those three elements.

    [Side note about RTFM. There is a young lady in my life whom I help with PC issues & software, with Web issues, and with life/legal/social issues, the latter not as often as the first two. She will question what I tell her, at times, but she knows I’m giving her the best advice I can – I’m the ‘go-to’ guy (I _hate_ that phrase) for a lot of folk I know for things PC, software, & Web.
    She also is the person who decorated my home. She chose things while shopping that I’d never have considered appropriate to the house. Everything she had my buy fit in every time, sometimes even enhanced what was already there. When I questioned her about some particular purchase, she didn’t swell up and yell RTFM, she just said, “Wait. You’ll see.” And I did. And she was right. She new, instinctively what took me years to learn: When you yell, “RTFM,” make certain everyone is reading the _same_ manual.]

    Oh, your password example? What if, instead of a kid breaking the parent’s password, it was the parent wanting to break the kid’s password? Not to snoop, but to determine if some seemingly innocuous but potentially dangerous activity were occuring? One example that come to mind is how much info the kid might be publishing on MySpace, FaceBook, or some other social site – we’ve already seen catastrophic results in the news about that kind of thing. That person probably did not feel the need to ‘splain _why_ there was a [perceived] need to hack a password. That’s when perhaps you should have questioned the need, then perhaps replied privately, rather than in a public forum. Or, maybe you did that?

    When you filter, you censor. It’s true that some information should not be made available to the public at large: be very, very, _very_ careful when arrogating to yourself the right to determine what information that should be.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to turn this into another post .

  6. I’m with you – I try to filter my help to avoid your aforementioned points. I’m no expert, but I know a few tricks, and ususally I too try to avoid “How to crack my neighbors WPA PSK key becasue my internet is broke” type of things.

    I agree, censorship is bad, at large…but given the purpose and audience of the ubuForums, it seems appropriate to restrict and regulate what information circulates there – there are too many ignorent users, I myself having been one.

    Besides, with todays litigeous society, I for one dont give a crap about who wants to crack whos password, hack this, or backdoor what – I’m not gonna be involved.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *