Guest post by Christof Leitner.
Automated retrieval of data from the web, also called web scraping, is becoming commonplace. A wide range of tools and technologies have been developed to facilitate web scraping. However, the legality and ethics of using these tools for data collection are often overlooked. Not paying attention to these aspects of web scraping could lead to serious ethical controversies and lawsuits.
Web scraping is the automated process of extracting and organizing publicly available information on the Internet. The extracted data is usually made available in a structured content table such as an Excel spreadsheet, displaying the data in a “readable” format.
The web scraping process
There is a huge quantity of data available on the Internet consisting of structured, unstructured, and semi-structured qualitative and quantitative. Data is available in the form of web pages, databases, HTML tables, emails, blog posts, tweets, images, video, and so much more.
Collecting and organizing this data manually is extremely time-consuming and difficult. That is why people often resort to various tools and technologies to automate some or all aspects of web scraping. Python web scraping tools are incredibly popular because of their amazing speed. However, to build such a tool, you’ll need to have some knowledge of Python coding.
Web scraping consists of the following interconnected phases:
Website analysis requires you to examine the underlying structure of websites or online databases to understand how the data is stored. This task requires a basic understanding of mark-up languages, such as HTML, XML, and CSS, the architecture of the World Wide Web, and various web databases, such as MySQL.
Website crawling involves creating and running a script that browses websites automatically and retrieves the necessary data. Crawling applications are commonly created using programming languages such as Python, Java, and R.
After you have extracted the data from the selected Internet repository, it has to be cleaned, processed, and organized. Doing so makes the data ready to be further analyzed. Considering the sheer volume of data, an automated approach is necessary to save time.
In recent years, numerous web scraping tools have become available that facilitate the automation of the web scraping process. Most of these tools are available in the form of cloud-based SaaS offerings as well as standalone desktop applications. Building an API can also be very helpful in data collection. Doing so can enable one to start a business around the data they have collected.
Legality of web scraping
There is virtually no legislation available that address web scraping directly. However, there are other laws and legislations that guide web scraping, such as breach of contract, illegal access and use of data, trespass to chattels, and copyright infringement.
Illegal access and use of data
There are many laws that prohibit the illegal use of data acquired through web scraping. The CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) and other similar state laws are the legal basis for claims in web scraping disputes. The CFAA prohibits intentional unlawful access of a computer and has provisions for both civil and criminal penalties.
Breach of contract
Scraping and reusing or republishing data copyrighted by a website owner is considered “copyright infringement,” especially if the data is used for financial gain. However, data collection is not prevented by copyright law, particularly if the content is user-generated, such as content from social media platforms.
Also, it is not possible to copyright ideas, only the representation or specific form of those ideas.
Trespass to chattels
During web scraping, if you damage or overload a website or server, you may be held liable under the “trespass to chattels” theory.
Web scraping cannot be used as a surveillance mechanism to reveal the trade secrets of a competitor.
Ethics of web scraping
The ethics of web scraping have not been addressed in as much detail as the legal implications. There are numerous perspectives when it comes to the ethics of web scraping. However the principles offered by the Association of Internet Researchers, Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0 is perhaps the most applicable to web scraping.
The first ethical consideration one should check before web scraping is whether the website includes a robot.txt file. This file may prohibit automated web crawling.
The second consideration is to prevent the use of data in a way that violates the privacy of other people. Even when individual privacy is not violated, the users of the website may not have consented to use of their data by a third-party. Using data without consent is a violation of the privacy of an individual.
Information retrieved from web scraping should also never be used for discriminatory practices.
Maintaining organizational privacy is also as important as maintaining individual privacy. Automatic web scraping can sometimes reveal information about organizational operations. However, such information should never be misused.
Benefits of legal and ethical web scraping
All businesses rely on data to make data-driven decisions. Data has become a key differentiator in today’s competitive marketplace. Web scraping can help you gain access to valuable data in an efficient way. However, it is essential that you keep the legal and ethical considerations of web scraping in mind to make the most of it.
There are several benefits of web scraping for organizations. First of all, it is an inexpensive way to get useful data from various websites. Web harvesting services use established tools to extract data. One can collect data not only from one website, but from the entire domain. Large amounts of data can be collected with a one-time investment.
Web crawling tools and technologies require little or no maintenance over extended periods. It means that you do not need to go overboard on your budget in terms of maintenance costs. Web scraping tools are also incredibly fast. What would take a person days can be accomplished in a matter of a few hours.
Web scraping increases the accuracy of data extraction. With manual data collection, even the smallest errors could lead to massive mistakes later on. Organizations are only able to make the right decisions if the data they have is accurate, and web scraping ensures that.
To ensure that the web scraping that you do is both legal and ethical consider these three aspects. Is the data copyrighted? Are you scraping personal information? Are the Terms of Service getting violated? If you answered negatively, you can legally web scrape.
However, it is crucial to strike the right balance between following the website’s rules and regulations and collecting the necessary data.
Christof Leitner is a code-loving father of two beautiful children. He is a full-stack developer and a committed team member at Zenscrape.com – a subsidiary of saas.industries. When he isn’t building software, Christoph can be found spending time with his family or training for his next marathon.