With some frequency, someone will ask a question about doing something illegal. Often, using a Baofeng radio without a licence, on frequencies for which the radio is not certified.

  • Amateur radio exists to give individuals who have demonstrated basic competency free access to the RF spectrum with very few restrictions. This test for competency is necessary to prevent innocent but harmful mistakes that interfere with others. Like a driver's license.
  • These innocent but harmful mistakes increase the risk that access to radios will be restricted. Perhaps Baofeng radios should not be legal to purchase. Perhaps purchasing them should require a license check, a program which costs money to administer and will raise prices.
  • More licensed amateurs protects our VHF and UHF allocations which are worth a lot of money to private interests.

I'm proposing we explicitly add illegal activities as off topic in the help center, and add it as a close reason.

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  • $\begingroup$ I fully agree with this. $\endgroup$ – Mike Waters Jun 17 '17 at 13:42

I generally agree that we shouldn't just go along quietly with someone proposing to transmit illegally or such, but some notes on the implementation.

Remember that someone may not know that what they are asking about is illegal. Lots of people think “oh I can just buy the radio, and it doesn't come with warnings, so it must be legal”. Thus:

  • We should not assume the asker is a bad person and criticize them, we should politely inform them that what they're asking out is outside of (your interpretation of) Part 97 rules. Don't make enemies unnecessarily, most especially in case the asker is willing to learn/get licensed (and just ignorant of the requirements) but would be put off by our tone.

    Note also that ideally, closure is “please fix your question so it can be reopened”. Don't frame your reaction as “sorry, no, go away” — unless it's fundamentally incompatible, like asking how to build/operate a jammer.

  • If the question itself does not involve an illegal action, it's just been revealed that the author isn't licensed or whatever, then it should just be edited to remove the context (if doing so produces a well-asked on-topic question).

    (The question which presumably provoked this discussion is an edge case for that, because the question's particular requirements are problematic.)

    Compare: it would be entirely against our purpose to say that someone not yet licensed can't ask a question about operation, and it wouldn't be our style to require them to qualify it with "I'm not yet licensed but...", in the same way that we expect questions to not contain signatures or self-introductions or such.

We already have three canned off-topic close reasons, which is the limit. Adding a specific one for illegal topics would make sense only if it is a more common problem than the existing ones ("not amateur radio", "fails to specify locale", and "product recommendations"), which it currently isn't.

I think that using “not amateur radio” together with a comment is most appropriate if a question is being closed.

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    $\begingroup$ So, what about the other half of the proposal, which is to update the help center? Whatever we do with these questions (close them, edit them, comment on them) it's not really fair to do any of that if we didn't define the scope of the site properly. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Jun 17 '17 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Good points, Kevin. Any objections to Phil's suggestion to at least mention illegal activities in the help center? I'm in favor of doing do. $\endgroup$ – Mike Waters Jun 17 '17 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ @PhilFrost-W8II Of course we update the help center if this is the new policy. But first is to discuss what the new policy is (and whether it is a good idea), and give people time to speak up on the subject (at least a whole day for the sake of time zones, and not everyone looks at meta routinely). $\endgroup$ – Kevin Reid AG6YO Jun 17 '17 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, I think this is distinct from "not amateur radio," because ham.se is also about "the technology of radio." Asking about how to do packet with some Baofengs on FRS frequencies is about radio tech, but it's illegal. $\endgroup$ – Rafael KR7MJ Jun 18 '17 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ Also I agree that the purpose of these tags is to get people to edit their questions. If someone learns what they wanted to do is illegal and decides to get licensed so they can do it legally on amateur frequencies, that's a great service to the hobby! The above-linked question (ham.stackexchange.com/questions/7759/…) is a great example. If the OP gets licensed, they'd find many others interested in digital modes, and might contribute greatly. We should encourage that! $\endgroup$ – Rafael KR7MJ Jun 18 '17 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ I closed the question in question (er?), as I felt that encouraging (or facilitating) such behaviour was actually probably something that goes against our own licences. The policy matter is secondary to that of their activities being actually illegal. When I closed the question, the reason I gave was 'other', and it put the text I typed in the 'other' box as a comment. At first I was confused, as the reason it put was the stock "not about amateur radio" one. But my text was in an additional comment - and I think that's fine. $\endgroup$ – Scott Earle Jun 18 '17 at 7:18

I am concerned that we have no geographic reference for the OP nor the application location. So how can we decide what is legal as this is highly dependent on geo-political boundaries?

On other ham radio forums, I see a wide variety of sciolists adjudicating from the keyboard - "One way transmissions are illegal", "cannot make calls to a business", "must always ID", "encryption is OK for emcom", and other false claims regarding US part 97 regulations. I prefer that this would be avoided here when the issue to tangential to the question.

When we suspect a particular action could be illegal in some jurisdictions, I propose that a reasonable approach is that the responder simply add a polite cautionary note to the comment or answer advising them that this may be prohibited by local regulations.

Finally, if we have a policy that allows us to close questions that we consider to involve potential illegal activity, are we granting tacit legal approval to all other questions? This could have professional implications for some of us.

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  • $\begingroup$ I really, really doubt the last point. The converse of the last paragraph is roughly "Only by complicity can we avoid incrimination." $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Jun 19 '17 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ I know what your saying but I live in the litigious USA where attorneys win lawsuits for too hot of coffee, failing to warn users not to trim their hedges with a walk behind mower, and for not advising against toasting bread in the bathtub while bathing... $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 19 '17 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ Wow. That is an incredibly misinformed argument. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Jun 20 '17 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure why you would say that. Adjudication of tacit approval occurs regularly in criminal and civil courts in the USA. $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ This might be a topic for law.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ – Mike Waters Jun 20 '17 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ You're right: explicitly approving questions by not stating they are off topic, and assisting in the illegal activity is a much lesser offense. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Jun 20 '17 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ But now we come back to the substance of my answer. I don't see how we can reliably determine when something is legal or not. On sites like eham, you can at least typically estimate the person's locale based on their call sign. Here we do not have any geographic reference unless they OP makes it apparent. And then if they do, as I said, a polite note indicating that this may not be legal is appropriate. But this is a judgement call that eham shows is often completely wrong by the majority of respondents... Maybe the people on this site are just that much smarter. $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @GlennW9IQ Ok on the locale; however, there have been plenty of questions here where there was no question that it was illegal. Some of those have been deleted. $\endgroup$ – Mike Waters Jun 20 '17 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ I can understand that, Mike. There are also times when we should be able to offer a legal alternative that the OP may not have considered so the question shouldn't be closed. I have no interest in moderating a board, I am merely reflecting how I would handle it sans moderation. I can appreciate that those who would prefer to moderate may have a different tact. $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ As an example of legal interpretation gone wrong, look at the assertion from this thread above "Asking about how to do packet with some Baofengs on FRS frequencies is about radio tech, but it's illegal. – Rafael KG7YWU". Sorry to pick on Rafael but FRS specifically allows digital transmission under limited conditions. TBC... $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ 47 CFR 95.193(b)(2): "The FRS unit may transmit digital data containing location information, or requesting location information from one or more other FRS units, or containing a brief text message to another specific FRS unit. Digital data transmissions must be initiated by a manual action or command of a user, except that an FRS unit receiving an interrogation request may automatically respond with its location. Digital data transmissions shall not exceed one second, and shall be limited to no more than one digital transmission within a thirty-second period, except that... $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ ...an FRS unit may automatically respond to more than one interrogation request received within a thirty-second period. So Rafael may be right under a specific use case but not in the general sense. $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ And just to be clear, I understand that all Baofengs may not be part 95 certified but are we sure that none are? $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 20 '17 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @mikewalters Sorry, forgot to tag you on my response $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 22 '17 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ @philfrost-w8ii Sorry, forgot to tag you on my response $\endgroup$ – Glenn W9IQ Jun 22 '17 at 23:27

This proposed bullet point has now been added to the help center.

From the discussion so far, what I see is that we have general agreement that we don't want to keep "illegal" questions — the problematic part is in the determination that they are such.

Therefore, I propose that we make it fuzzy:

Questions may not be asked here about:

  • engaging in activities which are blatantly illegal or generally considered harmful (such as radio jamming or transmitting without a required license).

I wrote "harmful" so we're not solely deciding based on legality, and "engaging in" so e.g. "how do we find a jammer" is not excluded.

Does this sound like a good approach and wording?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds good to me $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Jul 9 '17 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds good to me too. $\endgroup$ – Mike Waters Jul 10 '17 at 10:32

Having read about this some more, in particular trying to find an official StackExchange stance on this, it turns out that there is also the matter of jurisdiction.

In short, there are laws in every country that some people think are objectionable. I live in Thailand where there is no freedom of speech, for example. There are some computer laws that would make your brain hurt if you thought about them for too long.

BUT, having said that, if a question is asking about activity that is known to be illegal in their stated jurisdiction, I firmly believe that it is our duty as moderators to put said question on hold with a comment about illegal activity, and await clarification from the OP if any is forthcoming.

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