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I just raised a flag for "moderator attention" on this answer with the following message

This answer from a Microsoft employee recommends Azure without any kind of disclosure of conflict of interest in it. I do not consider the user profile and bio to be sufficient disclosure here because they are not permanent and can be changed without any notice (unlike editing which bumps the post).

This tag was declined with the following comment

declined - His username says Microsoft. Recommending his company's services is hardly a conflict of interest.

I disagree on both parts however, so I wrote this post on meta to ask for further explanation and for the opinion of the community on this matter.

  1. Recommending his company's services is hardly a conflict of interest: well, it is, in my view. The accepted answer to this relevant meta question states that If your answer tends to promote usage of a product, website, or technology where the you stand to benefit from that usage, then a disclosure [...] should be added to the post. In my view the answer promotes Azure, since OP speaks generically of "a cloud service", and the answerer is the first to mention Azure and suggest an Azure product for that task.

Also, From https://dba.stackexchange.com/help/behavior (emphasis mine):

Post good, relevant answers, and if some (but not all) happen to be about your product or website, that’s okay. However, you must disclose your affiliation in your answers.

  1. His username says Microsoft. Well, it does now. One of the arguments against disclosure in the profile here is that profiles are not permanent, and could be changed at any time without notice or history. The same objection applies to usernames (display names, actually). If one deletes a disclosure statement in the answer, (1) the post is bumped to the homepage for others to review, and (2) the statement is still there in the post history. None of these applies if a profile or a username gets edited.

[EDIT to clarify: a perfectly legitimate reason why the answerer could change his username and profile, for instance, is a job change.]

Is there a policy on this? What is considered sufficient disclosure for this site? Is a username sufficient?

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    Can you explain how one employee at Microsoft (out of ~140K) is possibly going to benefit from the usage of a free, temporary test VM? Do you think he gets a referral bonus? I'm a Microsoft MVP, do I have to disclose that affiliation in every single answer about SQL Server, or do you think Microsoft's cloud service is ubiquitous enough that if someone uses it as an example of how to test something, it's not some kind of hustle situation where you're promoting a service nobody has ever heard of and masquerading solely as a happy customer? Good grief. So many other things to get ruffled about. – Aaron Bertrand Apr 1 at 15:16
  • I don't think he gets a referral bonus, but that's a form of advertising, albeit small. Promoting their paid plans is the business reason why free test VMs exist in the first place, in the end. Also, I am confused because the argument here seems to be "there are rules against self-promotion, but Microsoft is exempt because it is huge". – Federico Poloni Apr 1 at 15:59
  • I say this this is valid question for meta, even though I disagree with some of the points. E.g. "...since OP speaks generically of "a cloud service","... Yes but failed to notice that he is speaking of a cloud service to host his MS-product database. – ypercubeᵀᴹ Apr 1 at 17:12
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    > there are rules against self-promotion, but Microsoft is exempt because it is huge hardly. The OP is already using Microsoft software, and there is no reason for an answerer (working for Microsoft or not) to assume they must have meant any cloud service except Microsoft's (never mind explicitly NOT Microsoft's). They explained one way to accomplish the OP's goal using Azure. Do you think it is unfair promotion just because they happen to work for that company? To what harm to anyone? Do you have an undisclosed affiliation with a competing cloud service? – Aaron Bertrand Apr 1 at 18:43
  • Do you have an undisclosed affiliation with a competing cloud service? No. I work for a university. – Federico Poloni Apr 1 at 19:20
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Use your common sense

Site rules and policy primarily exist to deal with contributions we do not want. Literal reading and application of the rules ("rules lawyering") is sometimes fun, but ultimately it misses the point:

We require disclosure because we do not want spam, astroturfing, or low-quality self-promoting content here. The community just doesn't want those things.

The rules are the way we achieve that goal. The rules are not an end in themselves.

Common sense needs to be used when assessing each case. Clearly some technically correct disclosure omissions are more serious than others.

A short answer with little value aside from a link to the author's product or service is much less desirable than a good answer that happens to provide a link to something the author is associated with as an aside. How close the user is to the product or service is a factor. Patterns of behaviour over time are also important.

Rules and policies

The paragraph quoted from the Expected Behavior help centre page starts with:

Avoid overt self-promotion.

The community tends to vote down overt self-promotion and flag it as spam.

A key word here is overt.

More information and context is in the help centre page How to not be a spammer.

I won't quote the whole thing, but the bullet points are:

  • Don't talk about your product / website / book / job too much.
  • Don't tell - show!
  • Don't include links except to support what you've written.
  • Always solve the asker's problem.
  • Answer for the ages.
  • Avoid poorly-written questions.

The main message is we want to discourage contributions that primarily serve the author's interests, rather than our community's.

The meta.dba question Disclosures, every post/comment or is profile enough? is about best practice. There may be a range of views on edge cases, but I personally don't object to Microsoft employees mentioning Microsoft products in passing without explicit disclosure.

Actions

There is a range of actions available to people who spot missing disclosure. The right action depends on the severity. For minor issues, a comment to the author might be appropriate. One might also decide to withhold an upvote, or, escalating slightly, downvote (once those privileges are available).

At the extreme end, one might flag as spam or for moderator attention. Remember, moderator flags imply moderator action, which is typically reserved for things regular users cannot do without that assistance.

This specific case

The answer you link to has 24 upvotes at the time of writing, and no downvotes. It has only ever had one flag (yours), which was rightfully declined. It has also only ever had one comment (added to alert the author to this meta question). By any measure, this answer has been well-received by the local community.

Further context is provided by looking at the author's profile. David is a trusted user, with very many high-quality answers that do not overly promote Microsoft products and services. I assess his overall contribution to the site as overwhelmingly positive.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that established users with a history of good contributions have carte blanche to spam the site. My point is these things are factors in assessing the severity of technically missing disclosure.

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We could ask Microsoft employees to state in every answer that involves any Microsoft technology that they are a Microsoft employee. We don't have a way to force them to do so, aside from deleting answers where they refuse to do so.

Personally, I don't think that drastic outcome is necessary, and would be a disservice to the community.

It is unreasonable to assume that this disclaimer noise will benefit anyone here, because everyone has heard of Microsoft and Azure. Also, votes on the answer give a much better indication of the usefulness of the content than any worst-case-scenario assumptions you might make about an author's intentions (even if David didn't have Microsoft clearly stated in his name, and has been that way for as long as I can remember).

We are pretty good at weeding out the people who are trying to pull a fast one, and silently promote a product that nobody has heard of, as if they are just a happy customer when in fact they have an affiliation. That is about the furthest thing possible for what is happening with a Microsoft employee, suggesting a temporary test using a free license on Azure, even if you suspect he may in the future change his username to trick everyone.

I am a Microsoft MVP, and it says so in my profile, so if you want to follow the letter of the issue you are trying to raise here, I should go back and update every single answer with a disclaimer about that affiliation. That is ridiculous, and it isn't going to happen.

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  • Your first sentence sounds like a slippery slope fallacy: I did not suggest to disclose every answer that involves Microsoft technology, only an answer in which OP suggests using a Microsoft product without the asker having shown previous interest in it. – Federico Poloni Apr 1 at 15:40
  • Also, I am not suggesting that he may change his username "to trick everyone"; there are much less contrived scenarios: suppose he changes job, for instance. – Federico Poloni Apr 1 at 15:44
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    @FedericoPoloni I think you're expecting a ridiculous amount of documentation for a situation that I don't even think meets any reasonable "conflict of interest" bar (the OP uses SQL Server). By this logic, every Stack Exchange employee answering a question on meta should disclose that they are a Stack Exchange employee in every answer / comment since, after all, they might not work for Stack Exchange forever. In any case, I don't see anything in the specific example you cited that would reflect the answerer knew anything more about Azure (or had any more reason to recommend it) than any user. – Aaron Bertrand Apr 1 at 18:29
  • @FedericoPoloni My point being, whether or not he was a Microsoft employee at the time of writing, makes no fundamental difference to the substance of the answer or the underlying intentions. In fact, I would argue that removing the Microsoft label in his username later, should he move on, makes the answer even more valuable, since it will be less likely construed as a message from a car salesman. Can you point out the actual harm you envision in not disclosing in the answer, other than hand-wavy conflict of interest? I don't see this in your question or comments currently. – Aaron Bertrand Apr 1 at 18:31
  • Regarding Stack Exchange employee marker: see my first comment. This is a slippery slope. They are not advertising a new product; you are already using that meta site when they answer to you. – Federico Poloni Apr 1 at 19:13
  • Regarding the actual harm in the non-disclosure: I see harm in having precedents and standard practices on your SE site to not require disclosure and go against the general SE rules ("you must disclose your affiliation"). I am not a regular here, so this answer just caught my eye, but there is nothing particularly bad about it. – Federico Poloni Apr 1 at 19:18
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In this specific case, we're not talking about simple development work here, it's not a demo, it's not a POC. We're talking about production database migration, emphasis mine, which implies money and costs money. It's never free lunch.

You can open free test accounts in Azure, and coupled with a free SQL developer license.. can make this test really cheap. You only need the cost of the vms and the blob storage, which in a cloud world cost, not much, but they do cost.

I read the question as: seeing these existing params, please estimate the speed for me. Which to me, as a production DBA, without a test, is not possible. Single tests are never reliable, you need multiple tests to get a solid repeatable answer.

So, in this context, the provided answer was very valuable as it provided a list of steps OP could take to achieve the stated goal. And the community on our site stepped in and actually showed they value this answer.

In this context, stating that he's a developer for the company that develops the OS, the corresponding database instance, and the tools to do it.. looks a bit odd.

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