Is Web Scraping Legal? The Complete Guide to Online Data Scraping

Every business today relies on data to make crucial business decisions, offer a quality customer experience, and more. We are living in an era where there is more data available than ever before. In fact, experts estimated that at the end of 2022, there would be 94 zettabytes of data produced in the world.

To put this into some perspective, this amount of data would need to be stored on  734,375,000,000 128-gigabyte iPhones!

But, the simple fact that this massive amount of data exists doesn’t help businesses unless they know how to access the information so they can leverage it in their own operations. This is where web scraping comes into play. 

Web scraping is a commonly utilized tool among businesses today, though there is often some stigma associated with this practice to those who don’t fully understand its purpose and how widely utilized it is. Throughout this post, we will cover whether web scraping is legal or not and provide you with some best practices for legal and ethical web scraping. 

Disclaimer: The information in this blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. If you have specific questions regarding the legality of your web scraping processes, you should consult with a legal expert. This blog provides an overview of the topic of web scraping and its legal considerations but may not cover all possible scenarios or address specific legal requirements applicable to your individual situation.

What is Web Scraping? What is it Used for?

Web scraping is the practice of extracting and collecting data from sources across the internet for a strategic purpose. Web scraping can be done manually or with web scraping tools, which provides users with a well-formatted way to perform data analysis on large sets of data. 

Most web scraping today is performed with sophisticated tools that make the process of scraping for data much more efficient and streamlined. Otherwise, you’d have to go through and copy-and-paste data by hand and seek out and compile the information from multiple sources across the web. 

Before we explore the legality of web scraping, it’s helpful to understand what companies use web scraping for in the first place. Here are some of the main purposes for businesses to utilize web scraping: 

  • Build an internal database
  • Compile a lead list with contact information
  • Perform industry/market research
  • Content moderation 

Is Web Scraping Legal?

Generally speaking, web scraping is legal. However, the answer to this question all depends on how you are procuring the data, the types of data you are extracting, and what you are using it for. In other words, you could enter into some gray areas depending on your data extraction practices. 

To keep web scraping practices legal, the main types of information you’ll need to approach with caution include personal information and copyrighted information. In addition, your methods of web scraping can also affect the legality of your practices, all of which we will cover in more detail below. 

Protected Data: Personal Information

This includes personally identifiable information (PII) that could directly or indirectly point back to a specific person. Different countries, states, and legal jurisdictions have varying regulations when it comes to protecting people’s personal data and information. 

Most notably, places like California and the EU have enacted consumer privacy laws that make it illegal to obtain, store, or use personal data on their citizens without the person’s consent, or having a lawful use for the data including information like: 

  • Name
  • Date of Birth
  • Address
  • Phone Number
  • IP Address
  • Bank Account Information
  • Medical Information 

Protected Data: Copyrighted Information

There could also be issues with extracting data that is copyrighted by a business or individual, even if it’s publicly available. This includes data like: 

  • Web Articles
  • Videos
  • Photos
  • Music

Simply scraping this type of information often doesn’t put you in legal trouble, but what you do with the information can. The main issue here is if you plan on replicating or repurposing the content elsewhere on the internet, breaching the rights of the copyright owner. 

Which Web Scraping Methods are Legal?

The methods you use to extract web data and content can also determine whether your practices are legal or not. 

The guidelines here can get a little murky because no jurisdiction has passed laws explicitly making web scraping illegal, though we now have a better idea of what types of information are protected, as described above. 

There have been legal battles surrounding this topic, though the courts have largely agreed that if the data is publicly available and not hidden behind a log-in portal, it is free game for web scraping. 

If you need to create an account on the site before accessing the data you want to scrape, you’ll want to pay attention to the Terms of Service that they lay out. The website could state that web scraping their content is forbidden. If you agree to these terms in order to make an account, you could be on the hook legally for any web scraping done after that point in violation. 

Case in Point: LinkedIn vs. hiQ

To further illustrate the legality of web scraping and how it has held up in court, let’s cover a recent high-profile case between LinkedIn and hiQ that ran from 2017 to 2019. 

This case covered the issues of web scraping and access to publicly available data on the LinkedIn platform. HiQ Labs was a data analytics company that collected publicly available data from across the web, including LinkedIn to determine employees’ likelihood of leaving their current jobs. 

LinkedIn argued that hiQ’s web scraping violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and took measures attempting to block the company’s access to LinkedIn data. In return, hiQ claimed that their web scraping was legal and protected under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution since the data they were scraping was publicly available. 

When the court made its ruling, it issued a landmark decision in favor of hiQ, stating that the web scraping of publicly available data from a website is not a violation of the CFAA. This ruling had significant implications for the web scraping industry, as the court’s decision set the precedent that scraping publicly available data is not an automatic violation of the CFAA. 

The legal landscape surrounding web scraping is still evolving and changing to this day. As certain jurisdictions continue to update their regulations surrounding data privacy and other related subjects, the legality of web scraping as a practice is subject to change as well. 

Best Practices for Legal Web Scraping

To help yourself avoid entering into legal troubles or ethical dilemmas with your web scraping, here are some of the best practices that you can utilize. 

  1. Review the Terms of Service: Before your start scraping a website, familiarize yourself with its terms of service and any other relevant guidelines for data extraction; adhere to any terms and conditions they set forth and pay attention to the robots.txt file on the website.
  2. Use Publicly Available Data: Keep your web scraping efforts focused on publicly available data; avoid trying to access data that is private or has restricted access. 
  3. Respect Intellectual Property: Don’t infringe any copyrighted or IP proprietary rights with your web scraping. 
  4. Scrape Only What’s Needed: Determine what your use is for the data, and try to avoid scraping data outside of this scope to avoid unintended consequences. 
  5. Adhere to Relevant Laws: Consider data privacy laws and regulations that may cover your web scraping work, especially for PII. 
  6. Consult with Legal Professionals: If you’re unsure about the legality of your web scraping practices, seek advice from qualified legal professionals for specific guidance to your situation. 

Outsource Web Scraping to the Experts

There’s no question that your business needs access to high-quality data in order to retain your competitive advantage in the marketplace. However, if you don’t have the manpower to implement web scraping practices into your operations, you may be discouraged.

Partnering with Assivo for web scraping means you can focus on doing what you do best while we custom-tailor a team and workflow to focus on your unique data needs. Contact us today to learn more about outsourcing your web scraping and learn just how easy it is to get started with Assivo. 

About Assivo

Founded in 2016, Assivo is an innovative and agile outsourcing partner to our clients. We assemble fully managed offshore teams tailored to fit individual client requirements.

Over the years, we have developed deep business process and technology expertise from serving 200+ clients. We are focused and dedicated to our clients’ success, and our long-term partnerships have enabled our clients to compete more effectively and win.

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