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The Legal Aspect of Web Scraping

by Rebecca Daniel

Perhaps you’re eyeing competitor data. You believe getting hold of it will give you a competitive edge. Because you desire to access this data repeatedly, you are considering the route of web scraping. 

But you’re uncertain if it’s legal to scrape it. Fret not; you are not alone. 

There’s a debate surrounding the legality of web scraping. Many businesses that follow ethical practices are concerned if it’s legal to scrape website data. 

We’ll provide an unbiased view of the legal aspects of, for example, Python web scraping in the guide below. If you are wondering how exactly web scraping could look like in detail, here’s a great blog article

What Is Web Scraping and Is It Legal?

Web scraping involves using automated tools that visit the websites, scrape the data, and present the HTML code in a readable format. 

Businesses, small or large, rely on data extraction for activities like lead generation, market analysis, price intelligence, and competitor analysis. 

While the entire process can be performed manually, software and tools make it more efficient, saving your time and energy. 

So, is it legal? Yes, it is perfectly legal as long as you follow some scraping rules (more in the section below). Besides, no law highlights the illegality of web scraping. Therefore, it would be wrong to consider it illegal. 

What Makes Web Scraping Legal? 

To begin with, we need to understand that web scraping is not some other-worldly task. Instead, it simply automates manual work. 

So, the software per se isn’t legal or illegal. Its usage, however, is what decides its legality or illegality. Simply put, what you scrape, how you do it, and how you use the extracted data will determine if you did the right or the wrong thing. 

Generally speaking, human beings can differentiate between ethical and unethical practices even if a law does not prescribe them. 

For instance, it doesn’t hurt to scrape data to understand what your competitors do to stay ahead. But if you want to conduct fraudulent activities through the extracted data, you’ll naturally know you’re doing something immoral. 

So, what makes scraping legal? First, no US law states it is illegal. Second, adhering to ethical scraping practices keeps it legal. 

When Is Web Scraping Considered Illegal?

Whether you do Python web scraping or use Java for this purpose, you’d want to know what makes scraping illegal. Below, we’ve discussed a few scenarios where data scraping becomes illegal. 

Non-Public Data 

It is perfectly OKAY to scrape the data publicly available on the websites. However, not all websites display the data publicly, and a few have non-public data that isn’t accessible. 

Typically, you are required to log in to view this data. If you cannot access the data after logging in, it isn’t available to the public. 

So, trying to scrape such data will only invite trouble for you. 

Copyrighted Data 

We’re all familiar with copyright content. However, you may wonder what it has to do with scraping. You may access the data protected by copyright when you extract the data. Using such data for commercial purposes will create problems. 

Blogs, research papers, images, databases, music, movies, and logos are some forms of copyrighted data. Note that even if they aren’t flagged under copyrights, there’s a limit to how you can use them. 

For instance, when conducting competitive analysis, you can only pick plain facts like product descriptions, price data, product names, number of sales, etc. 

Using the copyrighted material irresponsibly is considered copyright infringement.  

Personal Data 

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) states that personal data is the information associated with a person or household. It may include but isn’t limited to a person’s birthday, IP address, video and audio recordings, contact details, and family member names. 

You need to be extra cautious when it comes to personal data. While a few US states do not restrict scraping personal data, a few prohibit it. So make sure you check your state laws before proceeding. 

Crawl Rate

While speed makes web scraping powerful, it also makes it weak. Why? Because you may prefer the efficiency when extracting the web, the websites you scrape do not like aggressive crawling and scraping. 

Perhaps this is why a few websites implement crawl-delay settings to slow your data extraction. Make sure you follow a reasonable crawling rate. For instance, a single request within 10-15 seconds is considered safe. 

Terms of Service Violation 

Your heart will let you know if you’re crossing the line when scraping. For instance, if you bypass the Terms of Service (TOS), your practices are illegal. 

Websites store the data strategically to keep it from predatory scrapers. The Terms of Service will clearly state what information a site doesn’t want you to scrape. 

Trying to access such data will make scraping unethical. 

Conclusion

There is hardly any business today that doesn’t perform scraping for competitor analysis and related beneficial activities. You’ll naturally question its legality if you’re in the same boat. 

Web scraping is legal if you stay within ethical limits. As soon as you cross the bounds, it will be considered immoral. 

Note that not every unethical approach is illegal. That is, if your state allows scraping personal data, try to take an ethical alternative route to protect other people’s privacy. Even if you access someone’s personal data, use it productively. 

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