Speaking with authority

I’ve just spent the better part of three hours arguing on IRC about Let’s Encrypt clients. After speaking with two others, I realised that nobody who I spoke with before knew their facts were facts.

Different people all told me various incorrect information, such as:

  • No ACME client supports doing a manual DNS TXT record for verification bootstrapping until you have an httpd up. (acme.sh, dehydrated, and certbot all support this.)
  • LE needs IPv4 for the HTTP challenge. (It worked fine for me with an IPv6-only host. I’m not sure which it would prefer if it had the choice between v6 and v4, or if it’d use Happy Eyeballs and connect to whichever responded first.)
  • It isn’t possible to step through the process manually as a debugging aid; you have to rely on your ACME client’s debugging facilities. (https://gethttpsforfree.com/ helped a tonne.)
  • You have to be listening for the HTTP challenge on port 80. (The TLS-ALPN-01 challenge type exists which will only ever use port 443 for the challenge.)
  • Critique of how I isolated each service on a separate VM so that they would be more secure, saying it was “over-convoluted”.

All of these people spoke with an air of authority. They sounded like they genuinely knew what they were talking about, and were trying to inform me of the limitations of ACME clients / Let’s Encrypt. Nobody actually knew the answer, but they thought they were right because it fit their experience.

When I speak to people about technology, whether in real life, on IRC, or on a mailing list, I always try to make the limitations of my knowledge clear. Many is the time I have said “I’m not sure if you can do that”, or “I don’t know if X supports Y“. And sure, on occasion I will say “I have never done Y and last I knew X couldn’t do that”. Note, however, that all of these are presented as statements from my hive of knowledge, and not presented as plain facts. The art of communication seems to be lost on far too many in the technology field.

There is no shame in not knowing the answer to something. It is certainly more helpful to say “I’m not sure you can do that”, instead of “you can’t do that”. I almost gave up on Let’s Encrypt and wrote another article on how useless it is, because I was told by people who used Let’s Encrypt that it had all of these limitations that made it seem useless, arbitrary, and ridiculous to me. (Thanks to Rich Felker of musl, and Freeyorp, for setting the record straight.)

Maybe we need a new term for this. “Organic FUD”, since it comes from the community itself? At any rate, I hope that in the future, more people note the limitations of their knowledge up-front rather than sounding authoritative about a subject they know little about.

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