An appeals court Monday ruled that web scraping—or automatically extracting information from websites and storing it for later use—is legal, protecting a tool used by researchers but dealing a blow to Microsoft-owned social networking site LinkedIn, which claimed the practice endangers user privacy.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals affirmed its 2019 preliminary injunction stopping LinkedIn from blocking data company hiQ Labs from accessing publicly visible LinkedIn member profiles.
HiQ uses data scraped from public sections of LinkedIn to create reports for corporate customers, identifying which of their employees are most likely to quit and which are most likely to be targeted by recruiters.
In a 2017 cease and desist letter to hiQ’s CEO, LinkedIn said it had implemented “technical measures” to prevent the company from accessing the site, and claimed using the social network without LinkedIn’s authorization would violate the 1986 Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits activity like hacking and cyberattacks.
Additionally, LinkedIn told the court an injunction allowing hiQ to resume scraping would threaten users’ privacy and possibly damage the goodwill built up between LinkedIn and its users.
Because hiQ risked going out of business if blocked from scraping LinkedIn, denying an injunction would probably inflict more hardship on hiQ than allowing an injunction would inflict on LinkedIn, the court concluded Monday.
A LinkedIn spokesperson indicated that the company intends to keep pursuing the case, remarking the case is “far from over.”
After LinkedIn sent its cease-and-desist letter in 2017, hiQ asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to issue an injunction preventing LinkedIn from interfering with its data-scraping practices, or “misusing the law to destroy hiQ’s business.”. After the appeals court first ruled in hiQ’s favor in 2019, Microsoft petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, but ordered the appeals court to vacate its previous ruling and reconsider the case. On Monday, the appeals court upheld its 2019 decision, a ruling which a LinkedIn spokesperson described as disappointing. HiQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Scraping is not necessarily an illicit activity—search engines like Google use scraping to automatically gather web page addresses and descriptions to include in search results. Scraping can also be used to more efficiently collect and process data for scientific studies. An ongoing U.K. government study of opioid deaths made use of scraping to extract information from coroners’ reports at a rate of over 1,000 reports per hour, up from about 25 reports per hour when the task was being handled manually. Though LinkedIn acknowledges scraping can be used for legitimate purposes, it claims scraping of LinkedIn profiles done without the company’s approval endangers user privacy.
“Protect Your Site From Stealth Scraping Through Google Search” (Forbes)