Web scraping is generally considered legal if you scrape publicly available data on the internet. However, there are certain boundaries and legal considerations that must be respected, such as personal data protection, intellectual property regulations, and the website's terms of service.
It is essential to ensure that you are not scraping copyrighted content, private data that requires authentication, or violating any terms of service set by the website owner. While web scraping itself is not illegal, problems may arise when people disregard websites' terms of service (ToS) and scrape data without the site owners' permission. Legal regulations that may encompass web scraping include violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), trespass to chattel, misappropriation, copyright infringement, and breach of contract.
In conclusion, web scraping is legal as long as you follow the rules and guidelines, respect personal data and intellectual property rights, and adhere to the website's terms of service.
Navigating the Murky Legal Landscape of Web Scraping
The Web Scraping Legal Landscape in the US
Before we get into specifics, let‘s level-set on the legal context for web scraping.
There is currently no federal US law explicitly prohibiting web scraping.
However, that doesn‘t give you free license to scrape whatever you want. Several laws potentially apply:
- Copyright law: Scraping and republishing copyrighted content is illegal.
- Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: Outlaws unauthorized access to computer systems like websites.
- Terms of service: Scraping in violation of a site‘s ToS can lead to civil lawsuits.
- Other cybercrime laws: Such as bans on hacking, data theft, circumventing protections, etc.
So web scraping falls into a legal gray zone. Much depends on how and what data you scrape.
To illustrate the complexities, let‘s look at some real-world examples and cases that have helped define boundaries:
- LinkedIn vs. HiQ, 2017: HiQ scraped publically viewable LinkedIn profile data, aggregating it for employer analytics. LinkedIn issued a cease-and-desist accusing HiQ of violating the CFAA and ToS. A judge ruled in HiQ‘s favor, allowing scraping of public data.
- Facebook vs. Power Ventures, 2009: Power created a service to aggregate users‘ social data from Facebook and other sites. Facebook sued for violating the CFAA by accessing user accounts without permission. Courts ruled in Facebook‘s favor, establishing scraping private data as unlawful.
- Ticketmaster vs. Prestige, 2017: Prestige scraped Ticketmaster to gather event data for its competitive ticket brokerage business. Ticketmaster claimed Prestige violated ToS. While scraping ToS can‘t bring criminal charges, the court allowed a civil lawsuit for breach of contract.
- Sandvig vs. Sessions, 2016: Researchers challenged the CFAA by scraping for a study on discrimination in housing ads. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Scraping legality remains ambiguous.
So in the US, most scraping criminal liability revolves around the CFAA. But violations of ToS, copyright and other laws may trigger lawsuits and penalties.
Now that you understand the uncertain legal landscape, let‘s dig into more specific questions around permissible vs prohibited scraping practices.
Is Scraping Publicly Accessible Data Legal?
The simplest case is scraping data that:
- Is already publicly viewable by anyone online.
- Does not require logging in or submitting credentials to access.
- Is not protected by copyright (more on that next).
Scraping well-behaved, non-authenticated public data is generally allowed in the US.
For instance, you can legally scrape:
- Product listings on Amazon or eBay.
- Business info like addresses and phone numbers from yellowpages sites.
- Restaurant menus and hours from sites like Yelp.
- Hotel listings and amenities from TripAdvisor.
Really any data that search engines freely index and display in results is fair game.
That said, even public scraping becomes illegal if done excessively:
- Overloading servers: Scraping too aggressively can constitute a “denial of service” attack.
- Bypassing protections: Circumventing IP blocks, CAPTCHAs or other barriers violates authorization.
- Ignoring robots.txt: Scraping pages blocked by robots.txt breaches permissions.
So while open public data is generally scrapeable, you need to do so in moderation and respectfully.
Now let‘s move on to cases where web scraping enters more troublesome territory…
Is Scraping Copyrighted Content Like Articles and Images Illegal?
Unlike bare public data (prices, addresses, etc.), web content is very often copyrighted intellectual property.
This includes things like:
- News or blog articles
- Videos, music, and other media
- Stock images and graphics
- Academic papers and books
- Software source code
The original creators of such content have exclusive rights determining how it‘s reproduced and distributed.
So scraping and republishing any meaningful excerpt of copyrighted content without permission is straight-up illegal.
For example, say you scrape articles from the Wall Street Journal to repost on your own site. WSJ‘s publisher can file DMCA takedown notices forcing you to remove their content. Or they may directly sue you for copyright infringement seeking damages.
And remember – copyright applies even if the content is publicly viewable. Just because something is online without a login doesn‘t exempt it from copyright law.
The only case where you may legally reproduce tiny amounts of copyrighted content is fair use. This protects purposes like:
- Commentary and criticism
- Scholarship and research
But in general, I advise avoiding scraping any substantive copyrighted content without explicit permission. It‘s simply not worth the legal risks.
Now let‘s move onto the controversial topic of scraping sites behind logins…
Is Scraping Private User Data Behind Logins Illegal?
Public sites are one thing. But what about scraping data that requires logging in first?
- Private social media posts on Facebook or LinkedIn
- Personal info on insurance, banking or other financial sites
- Health records from medical patient portals
- Dating app messages, profiles and media
Accessing these private interfaces and scraping personal user data can violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
The CFAA bars intentionally accessing a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access. Courts have ruled this includes password protected, non-public websites.
So scraping private user data likely constitutes illegal unauthorized access, even if the login credentials are legitimately obtained.
For example, say you have a real Facebook account and scrape your friend‘s private profile info. Even though you didn‘t “hack” Facebook, this still breaches the CFAA by exceeding your authorized access.
The landmark LinkedIn vs. HiQ case confirmed scraping public profiles is okay. But private data behind logins remains off limits without explicit authorization.
So I‘d be extremely cautious about scraping any private, password-protected sources, even if you have legitimate credentials. Safest to get express permission first.
Now let‘s tackle the hot question of whether you can legally scrape data from Amazon…
Is Scraping Amazon Product Data Allowed? What About eBay, Walmart, etc?
AI startups, e-commerce tool developers, researchers and more want to extract data from major retail sites. But can you legally scrape Amazon, eBay, Walmart and other online shopping giants?
The answer is: it‘s complicated.
These sites invest heavily in technology to detect and block scrapers. Their terms of service also explicitly prohibit scraping.
So scraping Walmart or Amazon is technically breach of contract, which could prompt civil legal action. Their army of lawyers can come after you for violating ToS.
In practice, if you scrape respectfully in moderation, it‘s unlikely mega-retailers like Amazon will expend effort to legally pursue you over a bit of data. The public relations backlash risk likely outweighs benefit for them.
So pragmatic scrapers employ tactics like:
- Using proxies and other methods to mask scraping activity
- Limiting requests volume to reasonable levels
- Parsing robots.txt directives to avoid blocked pages
- Restricting usage of scraped data internally rather than republishing
This allows extracting enough Amazon info for research and product analytics without excessively burdening their infrastructure.
The same logic applies to responsibly scraping sites like Airbnb, eBay, Craigslist, Yelp, Edmunds, Autotrader, Zillow and pretty much any other public business directory, review or e-commerce site.
Just don‘t blatantly ignore their ToS by doing things like reselling their data. And prevent your scrapers from getting blocked to avoid motivating legal action.
Now that we‘ve covered what you can and can‘t scrape domestically, what about international data harvesting laws?
How Do Web Scraping Laws Differ Globally Outside the US?
While US web scraping laws have significant gray areas, other countries often take a stricter approach.
Some key examples include:
- GDPR prohibits collecting EU citizen data without explicit opt-in consent.
- Copyright Directive strengthens protections against reproducing content.
- ePrivacy Directive limits scraping personal telecom and internet data.
- Canadian copyright law mirrors the US, covering reproduced text, media and code.
- Computer crime laws prohibit unauthorized access like login scraping.
- UK copyright principles align with the US and EU.
- Breaching terms of service can spur civil litigation.
- More readiness to criminally prosecute CFAA-type violations.
- Lacks laws directly equivalent to the US CFAA.
- But broadly interprets hacking charges to include unauthorized scraping.
Asia (India, Indonesia, Singapore, etc):
- Generally quick to consider web scraping as computer hacking or mischief.
- Strict cybersecurity rules with fewer allowances for gray-area activities.
In summary, while some jurisdictions share similarities with the United States, international scraping tends to carry greater legal risks.
When harvesting data beyond US borders, consult local regulations and legal counsel to stay compliant.
Now let‘s switch gears to talk about ethical web scraping best practices…
Web Scraping Responsibly: Tips for Ethical Data Collection
Look, I‘ll be real with you here…
Even if your web scraping falls into legal loopholes, that doesn‘t necessarily make it ethical.
As data professionals, I believe we have a duty to scrape responsibly with high integrity.
Here are some tips to collect data in an ethical manner:
Review Robots.txt and Terms of Service
- Avoid scraping sites that explicitly prohibit it.
- If their terms aren‘t crystal clear, request clarification.
Scrape Courteously and Minimally
- Use slow, randomized request patterns that mimic humans.
- Monitor server load and back off if overloaded.
- Consider scheduling scrapes during off-peak hours.
Obfuscate Your Origins
- Proxy through residential IPs to distribute requests.
- Don‘t hammer sites from easily identified server ranges.
Don‘t Resell or Misuse Data
- Only use scraped data internally as permitted by site terms.
- Never sell private user data or copyrighted content.
Attempt Collaboration Over Confrontation
- Consider offering data back to scraped sites.
- Propose win-win partnerships before scraping without consent.
Have a Legitimate Business Purpose
- Only scrape data actually required for your apps or analysis.
- Avoid idle curiosity scraping without a solid use case.
Anonymize Private Data
- Scrub any collected personal information that could identify individuals.
- Take care not to unlawfully expose sensitive records.
By being a responsible steward, you can scrape ethically even in gray areas. Karma and ethics matter just as much as strict legality!
Practice Good Scraping Etiquette
I can‘t stress enough how important ethics and etiquette are, even if certain types of scraping are legal. Follow these principles:
- Respect sites' wishes and restrictions
- Don't overload sites by scraping too aggressively
- Use scraped data responsibly
- Consult with legal counsel for guidance
If you scrape ethically and carefully, it will go a long way towards keeping your activities legal and unblocked.
Staying Out of the Legal Gray Zone
The main takeaway is that while most public web scraping is allowed, you need to be aware of key risk areas like copyright, CFAA, ToS policies and scale.
Arm yourself with the right tools and scraping techniques, but also prioritize ethics and compliance. When in doubt, seek legal guidance from an attorney skilled in web data laws.
My last piece of advice? Approach web scraping with care and caution. While scraping can provide invaluable business insights, it has potential legal pitfalls if not done properly. Fortunately, you now have all the knowledge needed to navigate the web scraping legal landscape like a pro!
Wrapping Up: Scraping the Web Legally Comes Down to Being Thoughtful
Whew, that was a boatload of web scraping law analysis, huh? If your head hurts, don‘t worry. Let me leave you with the key salient points:
- No US law categorically prohibits web scraping. But it touches many problematic areas like copyright, hacking, and ToS breaches.
- Scraping non-copyrighted public data is generally permissible if done responsibly in moderation.
- Private user data, copyrighted content, prohibited material per ToS is off limits.
- Scraping Amazon and big sites is risky but typically allowed in limited volumes. Just don‘t be egregious about it.
- Trend carefully with international scraping since many countries frown upon it more than the US.
- Beyond just law, scrape according to strong ethics like minimizing harm and creating value.
Got all that? While the law remains unclear, just remember to scrape using sound judgement.
And feel free to reach out if you have any other questions! I‘m always happy to provide guidance on collecting data legally and responsibly.
Now get out there and start scraping the right way! We‘ve got a big data world to map.
Web scraping can feel a bit like the wild west of data gathering – full of gray areas and vagueness around what‘s allowed or not allowed. I totally get it! I‘ve been in the trenches of web scraping for over 5 years, and staying compliant with all the rules and laws can be downright confusing.
That‘s why I decided to write this detailed guide covering everything you need to know about the legality of web scraping. I‘ll share plenty of insight from my experience to help you steer clear of trouble areas and scrape data successfully and legally!
Have you had experience with the legality of web scraping before? I‘d love to hear about it! Let me know if you have any other questions. Happy (legal) scraping!