The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may have set an important precedent in the tech world. The court has essentially concluded that “Data Scraping” is not hacking. Hence, it might not be illegal to scrape data from websites, and social media platforms, unless there are defensive technologies in place.
After listening to the arguments in a case that involved Microsoft-owned LinkedIn and competitor hiQ Labs, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that scraping publicly available data does not constitute a federal crime. The case dates back to 2017 which LinkedIn had filed against hiQ Labs. The social media platform for professionals had objected to its data being scraped.
LinkedIn essentially wanted hiQ Labs to immediately cease scraping public data from the social networking site. During the first trial, the court sided with hiQ Labs, noting that LinkedIn couldn’t invoke federal hacking laws to stop the practice. The court opinioned that hiQ Labs’ behavior didn't seem to violate any laws, and hence, the company’s actions could not be classified as a crime.
LinkedIn appealed the ruling to the United States Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit court. The Appeals Court had recently deliberated on a case that reportedly involved a former Georgia police officer who was accused of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) by looking up license plate data in exchange for bribes.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have made a distinction between “improper use”, “unauthorized access”, and “authorized access”. The judgment reads:
As we have noted, however, a defining feature of public websites is that their publicly available sections lack limitations on access; instead those sections are open to anyone with a web browser. In other words, applying the ‘gates analogy’ to a computer hosting publicly available webpages, that computer has erected no gates to lift or lower in the first place.”
Simply put, had LinkedIn deployed mechanisms to prevent data from being scraped, hiQ Labs would have been in the wrong. However, since there were no restrictions, LinkedIn's insistence that hiQ Labs must cease its practice doesn’t have any merit.
The ruling could have a significant impact on data scraping. The practice has long infuriated social media platforms. Startups and smaller competitors to giants like Facebook have aggressively devised algorithms to scrape large chunks of data to quickly build and finetune their technologies. Needless to mention, tech giants have fiercely opposed the idea of data scraping. But henceforth, they might not have legal recourse, unless they deploy technologies to prevent the practice.