Web scraping remains one of the most powerful ways to collect large datasets about a wide range of things – so powerful in fact, it’s natural to wonder about its legality. Here in the US, there is a lot of scrutiny on how companies collect, process, and use data. Therefore, if you are going to be using web scraping, it’s important to understand the nuances and intricacies of the laws that apply to it.
In this article, we’ll explore some of these so that you can be better informed about what’s involved here.
So, Is It Legal?
The short answer is yes. Information on the internet is considered in the public domain, and there are no laws that prohibit you from gathering that data in an automated way. Web scraping does not infiltrate any private sites or password-protected portals – and so it is completely fair game to gather as much information as you would like.
However, there are two important disclaimers to this that you must be aware of:
The data must not be used for any harmful purpose or to directly attack the company whose website you’re scraping. The intent here matters, and in the past, we’ve seen court cases pivot around this important factor. The web scraping must be done with positive intent and not inflict harm on anyone else.
The data must not be personally identifiable information. The laws surrounding personal information have gotten a lot stricter in recent years, and so in many countries (including the USA), you are prohibited from collecting information that can be used to personally identify individual citizens in any way, shape, or form. If you do want to use this sort of information, you must mask it and aggregate it with privacy-enhancing technology before you can use it for your purposes.
These two complications have been at the center of the main court cases that we’ve seen in the USA, and as long as you steer clear of these, you’ll be above board and won’t have anything to worry about it.
Think Carefully About the Ethics
It’s important to know that even though the practice itself is legal, many companies still don’t like to have their data scraped. The reason for this is that if the web scraping is too aggressive, it can sometimes interrupt the service of certain websites and/or muddy the waters for their own web analytics that they use to monitor their company's performance.
As such, it’s ethical to be very intentional with how you do your web scraping and follow some of these key fundamentals:
Only scrape the data you need. When you’re embarking on a web scraping journey, be very intentional about the type of data you’re looking for and the reasons behind it. Don’t just scoop up everything you can think of and hope that you can do something with it. Give it some thought and identify the key business problems you want to solve, and then scrape the data that is going to help you with that. This precision is much better than a scattered approach and means that you aren’t overwhelming the sites that you’re scraping.
Check the terms and conditions of the sites you’re scraping from. Often websites will include information about the permissions that they give to visitors and what sort of web crawling is allowed with their data. Be sure to check this and ensure that your scraping is in line with their guidelines if you want to stay above board. It’s always a good idea to be aware of the implications and act accordingly.
Secure the data once scraped. Once you have scraped the data you need, treat it as you would any other internal data and ensure it is sufficiently secured. Using encryption and other best practices keeps that data in check and shows respect to the websites from which you’ve gathered that information. In this way, you can control the intention with which this data is used, and it doesn’t fall into the hands of malicious actors.
Delete data when it’s no longer useful. Once the data you have collected has run its course and you have no more use for it, delete it. This is good practice so that you’re never holding onto data for its own sake, minimizing the risk that something can go wrong with it. Good data hygiene is not only an ethical consideration but also a practical one relating to the costs and effort required in holding large datasets.
Those are some of the key ethical considerations that you should be aware of when embarking on web scraping projects. It can be a good idea to make someone accountable for these principles to ensure that they are always front and center as you scale your business. This person can speak up for these fundamentals and take action where required to protect the sanctity of the data and the procedures that govern it.
It's important to take these things seriously because data is swiftly becoming a highly contentious issue. So, your web scraping should always be within reason and in line with the regulatory and ethical best practices that govern the industry. If you implement the principles above and you continually evaluate the impact of your web scraping, you can get immense value out of it without ever compromising on your ethics.
The legal cases here continue to develop, and so it’s likely that the goalposts will move over time, so we recommend that you stay on top of the latest developments and abreast of key decisions surrounding the legal implications of web scraping. By doing this, you’ll always be ahead of the game, and you can be confident that your web scraping is fully within the bounds of ethical and legal requirements.
From there, the world is your oyster! All that’s left to do is to take that data and transform it into real business success.