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Is Web Scraping Legal in 2024?

Guides, Apr-02-20225 mins read

If you have experience with web scrapers, then you know how they can benefit your business. Scraping the web provides data that you can use to improve your products and services.

If you had your personal data scraped from your web pages, then you may be upset because you may have lost business because of it. Site owners are disgruntled that their website is scraped because data on their own website is personally identifiable information.

When data scraping on the web, you are taking information that someone else put together, using it for your own purposes. This can be done without the permission of the website owner. In some cases, scraping data can violate a website’s terms of service.

Since so many people do it, using web scraper tools is widely assumed to be legal. However, you may have also heard that web scraping is illegal and can lead to hefty fines. So, what is the truth? Is web scraping legal in 2023?

What is Web Data?

Before we discuss the legality of web scraping, it is important to understand web data. Web data is the information that you find on a website. This includes the text, images, videos, and other content that make up a website and is what you are looking for when web scraping.

Web data comes in two categories: public and private. Publicly available data is information that anyone can access and anybody can access these websites.

Private or personal data is data that does not permit public access and web crawling for this data can be illegal.

When you go about web scraping, you take public data and use it for your own purposes, which is why web scraping is legal in most cases.

What is Web Scraping?

 Web scraping is a method of extracting publicly available data from public web pages. Scrapers can collect data such as contact information, images, videos, and more.

There are many different ways to extract data. You may use a simple scraper that only collects text data or a more sophisticated scraper that collects images and videos as well.

Web scraping is when you take information from someone else’s website and use it for your own purposes. This can be done without the permission of the person who made that website. Depending on the data you scrape, web scraping is either legal or illegal.

If people post public data on a public website, then it is legal to scrape that data. However, if you scrape private or copyrighted data, then you could be breaking the law.

There are many different web scrapers available online and some of these web scrapers are free to use, while others require a subscription.

Why Do People Scrape the Web?

People use web scraping for a variety of reasons. Some people use web scrapers to extract data for research purposes while others use web scrapers to collect contact information or images. Here are some common reasons to scrape the web:

Collect Competitor Data

A company might use a web scraper to extract data about its competitors and use this data to improve the company’s products and services or to uncover new market niches.

Sales and Marketing Campaigns

Salespeople and marketers also use web scrapers. Marketers use web scrapers to collect data about potential customers and markets to create targeted marketing campaigns.

Salespeople may use a web scraping tool to find the contact information of a prospect and add them to a call or email list. This is a common lead generation practice made possible by web scraping.

Extract News From Different Sources

One common reason to scrape public data is to collect news from different sources which is done manually or by using a news aggregator tool.

Journalists and students use data scrapers for research papers, articles, and investigations. Being able to scrape publicly available data makes it very convenient for reporters and researchers to do their work.

Gather Data for a Machine Learning Model

Data scientists and big companies use web scrapers to compile data for machine learning models. This data can be used to train the model to recognize patterns or make predictions about future events.

Web scrapers are an important tool for data scientists since they grant these models automated access to a wealth of data that they would otherwise not have access to. 

Spam Websites

Some people also use web scraping tools to spam websites. This is when someone collects email addresses from a website and then sends the owner of that website unwanted emails. This is one reason why some question the ethics of web scraping.

Steal Personal Data

Another unethical use of web scraping is data theft. This is when someone uses a web scraper to collect private data, such as credit card numbers or login credentials. to commit fraud or identity theft.

Is web scraping legal if it is used to steal personal data? Absolutely not.

In most cases, scraping public data is perfectly legal. However, there are a few exceptions and we outline them in this article.

Web scraping is legal in most cases. If you are extracting data from a public website, you are probably not violating any laws. In the United States, there are no federal laws restricting scraping web servers but you cannot purchase an excessive number of bots for automated access to servers at once.

In Europe, the legal situation is similar as there are no specific laws against web scraping. However, if you are scraping data protected by laws and terms of service, you could be violating the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is a set of regulations that protect the privacy of European citizens.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. If you are scraping certain data from a website that requires a login or a paywall, then you may be violating the terms of service of that website. 

If you scrape copyrighted data, you may be at risk of copyright infringement if you use that data. Additionally, if you are scraping private data, such as contact information or financial data, you may also find yourself in legal trouble.

What are the Risks of Web Scraping?

While web scraping is legal in most cases, there are some risks associated with it that you should know about. 

Violating Terms of Service

Every website has its terms of service and privacy policy, and these terms can vary widely. Some websites may prohibit web scraping outright, while others may allow it under certain conditions. If you violate a website’s terms of service, you could be subject to a lawsuit or other legal trouble.

Scraping Protected Data

Another risk is that you could scrape copyrighted data. Copyright law protects creative works, such as books, movies, and music. If you use web scraping tools for copyrighted data, then you could be at risk of copyright infringement.

Additionally, you could also scrape private data, which includes contact information or financial data. If you scrape this type of data without the owner’s permission, you could be violating their privacy rights.

Breaking Local Laws

In some cases, there are local regulations associated with web scraping. For example, in the European Union, the GDPR protects the privacy of citizens. If you access data protected by the GDPR, you could be subject to a fine or other legal consequences.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA) is a US federal law that prohibits unauthorized access to computer systems. If you scrape data from a website that requires authentication without the owner’s permission, you could be in violation of the CFAA.

The law prohibits unauthorized access to “protected computers,” which includes any computer in interstate or foreign commerce or communications. In other words, if you access sensitive data from a website in the United States, you could be violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

What is Computer Fraud?

Computer fraud is any type of fraudulent activity that involves the use of a computer, which includes activities like hacking into a computer system, stealing data, or causing damage to a computer system.

Web scraping can be considered computer fraud if you are accessing data without the owner’s permission. For example, if you access personal data from a website that is behind a paywall, you could be violating the terms of service of that website.

Additionally, if you access data from a website that requires a login, you may also be violating the terms of service. Simply bypassing the pop-up window and login screen could be considered unauthorized access under the CFAA.

Major US Web Scraping Lawsuits

In the US, there are numerous examples of companies that pushed legal boundaries with web scraping. Here are a few major lawsuits:

Linkedin vs. hiQ

In 2019, LinkedIn sent a cease and desist letter to data startup hiQ, accusing them of web scraping public user profiles. LinkedIn claimed that hiQ was violating the CFAA. The first order by the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of hiQ, but LinkedIn applied to the US Supreme Court. In June of 2021, the Supreme Court ruled for a revision case.

eBay vs. eBidder

In 2000, online auction site eBay sued data startup eBidder for web scraping their site. The case was settled outside of the US Supreme Court and eBidder was ordered to stop scraping eBay’s data. The main reason that eBay won the lawsuit was that frequent requests to their web server caused system exhaustion.

Facebook vs. Power Ventures

In 2009, Facebook sued the social networking site Power Ventures for web scraping user data. This was one of the earliest examples of a lawsuit that came from an intellectual property standpoint. Facebook claimed that Power Ventures was violating its terms of service.

Facebook won the lawsuit on the legal precedent that Facebook’s users had intellectual property rights. Power Ventures was scraping personal data, meaning that a substantial portion of the personal data was protected under data privacy laws.

Ethical Web Scraping Best Practices

If you want to ensure you are scraping web data ethically, there are a few practices you should follow:

Check the Terms of Service

Before you start using web crawlers on a website, make sure you check the terms of service. Some websites may prohibit web scraping outright, while others may allow it under certain conditions.

Get Permission Before Scraping Private Data

If you want to get ahold of private data, such as contact information or financial data, you must get the owner’s permission first by contacting them. You can do this by sending them an email or asking them in person.

Don’t Scrape Personal Data

When you are data scraping, avoid scraping any sensitive data, such as copyrighted data, private data, and other types of sensitive information.

Be Careful When Scraping Local Websites

If you are scraping public data from a local website, ensure you are aware of any local regulations that may apply. For example, in the European Union, the GDPR protects the privacy of citizens, and the CFAA does the same in the United States.

Follow The Golden Rule

If you want to minimize risks, always follow the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. If you wouldn’t want someone scraping your data without your permission, don’t do it to someone else.

The Bottom Line

The legality of web scraping is still sometimes a legal gray area. But there are a few things you can do to ensure you are scraping ethically.

Check the terms of service of the website you want to scrape, get permission before scraping private data, and be careful when scraping sensitive data.

Furthermore, always make sure that you access the data with a reasonable crawl rate to avoid putting unnecessary strain on the website’s servers. As long as you are scraping publicly accessible data, there should be no issue.

Always remember that there are human users on the other side of your target websites, so make sure to follow the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated.

Have you ever been involved in a web scraping project? Let us know in the comments below!