Talking about web scraping can take a while. It is a niche subject and not many people actually know much about it. A friendly chat can wind up with many misunderstandings and disagreements.
Within people that run and talk web scraping, this one question will often arise: Is what I’m doing actually legal? Is web scraping legal, or am I conducting a felony?
This topic I will address in the paragraphs to follow. Trying to prove that with minimal care, web scraping is legal, but of course, there are some rules that you can’t break.
Let’s find out how to web scrape and not sleep with one eye open.
Why web scraping can feel offensive or/and aggressive
When searching for the data, you might want to create a database to improve your decision-making process. Web scraping comes with different tools and services available on the market. In this situation, web scraping looks like an internet guardian angel.
But when you are on the other side of the story, and your competitor’s scrapers are assaulting your website to get business and financial advantages, you get offended.
There are some reasons why web scraping is a controversial subject. Here are they:
Scraping data provides an immediate competitive advantage for those who use it. Usually, they do it for financial purposes (to grow a business by making it more profitable), which builds the perception that web scraping is directly related to making money. And people don’t like something that is misused for financial reasons. That’s why they consider it unethical.
Terms of Services and norms violations
There is a thin line between doing web scraping right or wrong. It is considered that most of the times, those who engage in web scraping cross that line and violate Terms of Service norms. It’s challenging for people to perceive web scraping positively when it’s not understood properly.
Just the way it works
Using a web scraper means that you will send multiple requests to a website, many more than a human can do by hand. As a result, people find it annoying and offensive because it might cause a heavy load on their website.
A significant advantage of web scrapers is that they can bypass security measures and blockers so they can get the data you need. It’s understandable why those with scraped websites get offended.
As mentioned in previous articles, web scraping will continue to have a bad reputation until people understand how it works. There are multiple subtle ways people find it unethical or offensive, but ironically, those that find it offensive are also those who need it.
Legal or not?
The importance of data in this fast-paced world is indisputable, so I will not discuss here the final impact of web scraping or its multiple benefits. Some lines shouldn’t be crossed so that you can be safe and on the legal side of the story.
Next, I am going to address some key points and show you where that line is.
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)
Luckily, there are some norms and limits that you can follow when web scraping, to make sure you stay legal with your actions. These norms refer to abusive access and use of data and directly using it for commercial or financial gain purposes. As long as you make sure you don’t scrape abusively and don’t use the exact same data for commercial purposes, you should be fine.
Usually, companies protect their data with copyright, which means that you shouldn’t use it per se for whatever reason you have in mind. If you scrape data, but you don’t use or publish the same content, it is not considered a copyright violation. You are legally fine as long as you scrape but don’t reuse.
Trespass to chattel
Rules are rules and apply to every kind of property: houses or websites. Pay attention, don’t enter a prohibited space on a website, and don’t behave in a harmful way. By doing so, you make sure you don’t violate any property rights.
Follow and respect the rules from Robots.txt carefully and enjoy your web scraping peacefully. If web scraping is mentioned in Robots.txt, you should first get written permission from the website owner and then proceed to web scraping,
CrawlRate or hitting the servers too frequently
Try not to overload the website with multiple requests. Websites are made for humans, not robots, so they have limited capacity. Use a reasonable scrape rate, like one request per 10–15 seconds, so you don’t bring down the server. This will keep you in a safe zone.
API vs. scraping the data
Using provided APIs has multiple benefits, like keeping you on the legal side of things while web scraping. If the website provides an API and you don’t use it, then the whole story complicates.
Violating Terms of Service
Here is almost the same thing as with Robots.txt. If web scraping is not allowed, you need written permission and must respect and follow the ToS carefully to stay legally compliant.
Going beyond the public content
Web scraping is used for public content only. That’s the first thing in the definition. And the reason is that going after illegal content will bring you legal issues. Stay safe by not pushing the limits and use the content wisely.
In this data-driven world, web scraping is inevitable. The question is not whether to scrape or not because all businesses will do it in the end. The question is how to make it legally, ethically and without harming other entities.
As you can see above, there are some rules to follow when engaging in web scraping. And the first and most important one is to find the balance between scraping under all circumstances and following the website’s rules and norms.
If you don’t follow regulations, you are exposed to legal complications, and prices must be paid. Unfortunately.
On the other hand, you need to scrape smart. Never use, publish or do anything public with the data you scape. The main goal of web scraped data is to be analysed, put in perspective and help you make the best decisions for your business.
As long as you thread respectfully and are mindful of your actions, web scraping will remain safe and legal for all those involved.
I know It might sound a bit intimidating, but once you know the rules, you can wholeheartedly boost your business with the power of web scraping.