Stack Overflow could suspend your account if you change a post to protest OpenAI's deal

One developer who modified his post to include a protest message found his Stack Overflow account suspended for seven days.
Written by Lance Whitney, Contributor
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

A deal between Stack Overflow and OpenAI seems to have triggered a battle between the developer forum and its users.

On Monday, Stack Overflow announced a new deal in which user content would be scooped up by OpenAI to train ChatGPT. As a forum for developers and programmers, Stack Overflow is home to technical posts and content that is valuable to a generative AI service like OpenAI's ChatGPT.

The announcement, however, compelled at least one user to modify his posts in protest. That in turn prompted Stack Overflow to suspend that user's account for a week. In a post on Mastodon, an Epic Games developer named Ben said that he tried to remove content from his Stack Overflow posts in reaction to the forum's partnership with OpenAI.

Also: Stack Overflow uses AI to give programmers new access to community knowledge

Because Stack Overflow doesn't let you delete questions that have accepted answers and many upvotes, Ben protested by changing the content of his questions to say: "I have removed this question in protest of Stack Overflow's decision to partner with OpenAI. This move steals the labor of everyone who contributed to Stack Overflow, with no way to opt-out. OpenAI has a history of flooding the web with inaccurate information and explicitly states that they will never pay creators for their work."

One Stack Overflow user's modification of a question

Within an hour, moderators on the forum had reverted Ben's questions to their original states and suspended his account for seven days. Per Ben's Mastodon post, a notice from the Stack Overflow moderation team told him that he had recently removed or defaced content from one of his posts.

"Please note that once you post a question or answer to this site, those posts become part of the collective effort of others who have also contributed to that content," the notice added. "Posts that are potentially useful to others should not be removed except under extraordinary circumstances."

The moderators concluded by saying that once the matter is resolved, his reputation score will be restored and his account will resume as normal.

Stack Overflow's message from the moderation team

Following up on his initial Mastodon post, Ben said that he had asked Stack Overflow to permanently delete his questions and answers under GDPR. He also criticized the OpenAI's data scraping.

"It's just a reminder that anything you post on any of these platforms can and will be used for profit," Ben wrote. "It's just a matter of time until all your messages on Discord, Twitter, etc. are scraped, fed into a model and sold back to you."

Other Stack Overflow users have chimed in with questions and complaints about the OpenAI deal. One person asked: "Where is the opt-out option, so my answers don't get used by OpenAI?" Another person asked if Stack Overflow users are legally entitled to any benefits from the OpenAI deal."

The conflict raises the question: Who owns the data that you post on a public forum? GDPR has a "right to be forgotten" measure in which you can request that your data be removed from a website, but this typically applies to personal or sensitive information.

Stack Overflow's Terms of Service state that "once you place content in the public sphere, you willingly give up some rights and control over such content." Furthermore, the forum lets you delete a question or post, but only if no one else has responded to it. Once a post generates answers and even upvotes, you're strongly discouraged from removing it.

Also: Stack Overflow joins Reddit and Twitter in charging AI companies for training data

This clash also highlights issues around generative AI and data gathering. What happens when a public website allows its content to be scraped by AI? Do the creators of that content have any say in the matter?

Stack Overflow is facing a backlash in part because the company had previously resisted the lure of AI. In a policy post from late 2022, the site banned the use of ChatGPT and other generative AI tools when writing or rewriting content. Now, AI seems to be okay, as long as it generates revenue for the company.

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