It may become illegal to scrape public websites. This is the a position that worries Orin Kerr, a legal scholar from George Washington University, while watching a lawsuit take place between Linked In and hiQ.
HiQ is a company that scrapes the publically accessible LinkedIn user profiles and packages them for sale to customers. These customers are employers who are watching to see if their workers are looking for other jobs. LinkIn sent hiQ a cease and desist letter and cited the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) as support. HiQ responded with a lawsuit claiming they were not violating the law and not beholden to the letter.
Internet Law Precedents
The CFAA has a broad definition. It makes it illegal to access other computers, or specific areas of other systems, without authorization from the owner. In 2016, a social media aggregation site called Power Ventures lost a lawsuit against Facebook because they accessed Facebook account with the user’s permission but without Facebook’s permission, ignoring one cease and desist letter from Facebook. While there are similarities in the cases, hiQ accessed public sites without password security. That could be the deciding difference between these two cases.
Public Access Concerns
Orin Kerr finds this case unsettling because of the implications if LinkedIn wins. Even visiting a website that is publically accessible can become illegal if the owner does not want the user at that website. Kerr argues that, without passwords, sites should be fully accessible to the public. That includes accessibility for scraping purposes. Doing so will protect the rights of other companies and groups who build businesses and tools by gathering data from other websites.
HiQ vs LinkIn is being heard by a California federal court, the same court that supported Facebook’s claims, in 2016. Hopefully, the same restrictive precedent set by the Power Ventures case will not mean an end to web scraping tools as a legal way to gather data.