Web Scraping and Related Legal Issues

Computers are learning to do it all—even surf the Web. These computers, or programs, explore the World Wide Web, gathering information and processes for use in other forums. This technology, which is known as “web scraping” may also threaten website and consumer privacy concerns. Indeed, websites have a proprietary interest in their content and others are not authorized to access and reuse this information. Consumer information that is available online is not necessarily available for any use.  As such, web scraping has become a concern as regulators attempt to outline the parameters. Do you operate a website? Are you a consumer with personal information available over the Internet—such as your name, address, salary, or work history?  Do you have an interest in gathering information from various sites for your personal use? Do you wish to revise your terms of service in light of these advancements? If so, web scraping is relevant to your business and privacy concerns.

What Is Web Scraping?

Web scraping is the process of using computer software to extract information from websites. Usually, this type of software simulates web browsing that is performed by a human. This technique is used to automatically gather information from various websites. This is an effective tool in several fields such as online price comparisons. Often, the aggregate website will have agreements with other websites allowing web scraping to gather pricing data. Additionally, web developers often use this technique to copy website content and reuse it when designing a new site. However, this process can also be used in ways that press against privacy concerns. For example, web scraping can be used to gather a consumer’s personal information. This includes contact information, personal websites, and professional histories. Web scraping can also gather an online user’s comments on discussion boards. All such information is valuable to businesses that want to know how consumers feel about their products or services. Web scraping has increased drastically over the last few years. In 2013, web scraping made up 23% of all online browsing traffic.

What Are The Legal Issues Associated With Web Scraping?

Until 2000, it was generally unclear whether web scraping is legal. Then, eBay filed an injunction against Bidder’s Edge to stop the online auction site from using a web crawler to gather information from eBay’s website. In eBay, Inc. v. Bidder’s Edge, Inc., eBay’s successful effort drew attention to the potential legal implications of web scraping.  Now, many websites will state, in their terms of service, that web scraping is not permitted on their site. Although, continued web scraping may not qualify as a criminal offense, websites can still seek legal remedies to stop web scraping that is in violation of their terms of service. Indeed, some websites install services to prevent web scraping entirely—such as requiring users to duplicate a combination of distorted letters, numbers, and symbols (a/k/a “Captchas”) before accessing the site to ensure the user is human. Until the law in this area becomes clearer, websites can save the time and effort of filing a lawsuit in the future by taking preventive steps against web scraping.

You may contact us to speak with an attorney about how web scraping may affect your online operations or how you can better prepare for the technology.