The popularity of web scraping is growing at such an accelerated pace these days. Nowadays, not everyone has technical knowledge of web scraping and they use APIs like news API to fetch news, blog APIs to fetch blog-related data, etc.
As web scraping is growing, it would be almost impossible not to get cross answers when the big question arises: is it legal?
If you are browsing the internet for a legit answer that best suits your needs, you have come to the right place. Minimize the risks.
Spoiler alert: The question of whether web scraping is legal or not has no unequivocal and definitive answer. This answer depends on many factors and some may vary depending on the laws and regulations of the country.
But, first, let’s briefly define what web scraping is for those unfamiliar with the concept before we dive deeper into the legalities.
Short Saga of Web Scraping
Web Scraping is the automated art of collecting and organizing public information available on the Internet. The result is usually a structured composition stored in a table of contents as an Excel spreadsheet, which displays the extracted data in a “readable” format.
This practice requires a software agent that automatically downloads the desired information by mimicking your browser’s interaction. This “robot” can access multiple pages at the same time, saving you from wasting valuable time copying and pasting data.
To do this, the web scraper sends many more requests per second than any other human being could. That said, your scraping engine must remain anonymous to avoid detection and blocking. If you want to learn more about how to avoid getting left behind on the data side, I recommend reading this article before choosing a web scraping provider.
Now that we have an overview of what a web scraping tool can do, let’s find out how to use it and keep you sleeping soundly at night.
Is the Process of Web Scraping Illegal?
Using a web scraper to collect data from the Internet is not a criminal act in and of itself. Many times, scraping a website is perfectly legal, but the way you intend to use that data may be illegal.
Several factors, depending on the situation, determine the legality of the process including:
- The kind of data are you scraping
- What do you want to do with the scraped data?
- How you manage to collect the data from the website
Let’s talk about different types of data and how to handle them gracefully.
Because data such as rainfall or temperature measurements, demographic statistics, prices, and ratings are not protected by copyright, they appear to be perfectly legal to scrape. It is also not personal information. However, if the source of the information is owned by a website whose terms and conditions prohibit scraping, you may be in trouble.
So, to better understand how to scrape smartly, let’s look at each of the two types of sensitive data:
- Personal Data
- Copyrighted Data
Any type of data that could be used to identify a specific individual is considered personal data (PII in more technical terms).
One of the hottest topics of discussion in today’s business world is the General Data Protection Regulation. The GDPR is the mechanism that establishes the rules for the collection and processing of personal data of European Union (EU) citizens.
As a general rule, it is recommended that you have a legitimate reason for obtaining, storing, and using your personal data without your consent.
The vast majority of the time, businesses use web scraping techniques to collect data for lead generation, sales insights, and similar issues. This purpose is generally not compatible with any of these legitimate reasons, such as official authority, where personal data can be accessed without any consent if it is a matter of public interest.
Keep in mind: You are more likely to scratch legally safe if you avoid mining personal data (if we are talking about EU or California citizens).
Data is king. And, every king has guards on duty to protect him. And, one of the most ruthless soldiers in this scenario is Copyright. This prohibits you from scratching, storing, and/or reproducing data without the consent of the author.
As with copyrighted photographs and music, the mere fact that data is publicly available on the Internet does not automatically imply that it is legal to extract it without the owner’s permission. Companies and individuals who own copyrighted data have specific power over its reuse and capture.
Data generally strongly protected by copyright are Copyrighted data like Music, Article, Photos, Databases, Articles
An observation: Scraping copyrighted data is not illegal as long as you do not intend to reuse or publish it.
Do you remember that box you have to check every time you create an account? Because the box remembers you. And if somehow you manage to scrape a website that clearly forbids using automated engines to access their content, you can get in trouble.
Terms of service translate intro: the legal agreements between a service provider (a website) and the person who uses that service (to access its information). Hence, the user must accept the terms and conditions if he wants to use the website.
Data Scraping is something that has to be done responsibly. So it’s better for you to review the Terms and Conditions before scraping a website.
How to Make Sure Your Scraping Remains Legal and Ethical
1. Check the Robots.txt file.
In the past, as the Internet was learning its first words, developers had already discovered a way to scrape, crawl, and index fledgling pages.
These skilled children for such operations are nicknamed “robots” or “spiders” and sometimes sneak into websites that were not intended to be crawled or indexed. Aliweb, the inventor of the world’s first search engine, came up with a solution: a set of rules that every robot should obey.
To help ground the definition, a Robots.txt is a text file in the root directory of a website intended to tell web crawlers how to crawl pages.
So for smooth scratching, you need to carefully follow and check the rules of Robots.txt. There’s a little trick that can help you peek behind the scenes of a website: type robots.txt at the end of any URL (https://www.example.com/robots.txt)
However, if Terms of Service or Robots.txt clearly interferes with content retrieval, you must first obtain written permission from the website owner before you begin to collect their data.
2. Defend your web scraping identity.
If you’re scraping the web for marketing purposes, anonymization is the first step you can take to protect yourself. A pattern of repeated and consistent requests sent from the same IP address can set off a slew of alarms. Websites can tell the difference between web crawlers and real users by tracking a browser’s activity, checking the IP address, installing honeypots, attaching CAPTCHAs, or even limiting the request rate.
To name a few, there are several ways to safeguard your identity:
- A strong proxy pool
- Use rotating proxies
- Residential IPs
- Take anti-fingerprinting measures
3. Don’t get greedy — only collect what you need.
Companies frequently abuse the power of a web scraper by gathering as much data as possible. That’s because they believe it will be useful in the future, but data, in most cases, have an expiry date.
4. Check for copyright violations.
Because the data on some websites may be protected by copyright, it’s a good idea to look for a proprietary warrant before you start scraping.
Make certain that you do not reuse or republish the scraped data’s content without first checking the website’s license or obtaining written permission from the data’s copyright holder.
5. Extract public data only.
If you want to sleep well at night, we recommend only using public data harvesting. If the desired content is confidential, you must obtain permission from the site’s source.
Best practices for scraping
- Check the Robot.txt file
- Defend your identity
- Collect only what you need
- Check for copyright violations
- Extract public data only
So there you have it: we’ve covered all of the major points that will determine whether your web scraping is legal or not. In the vast majority of cases, what businesses want to scrape is completely honest if the rules and ethics allow it.
However, I recommend that you always double-check by asking yourself the following three questions:
- Is the data protected by Copyright?
- Am I scraping personal data?
- Am I violating the Terms and Conditions?
If you answer NO to all of these questions, congratulations: you are legally free to web scrape.
Just make sure to strike the right balance between gathering all of the necessary information and adhering to the website’s rules and regulations.
Also, keep in mind that the primary goal of harvested data is to be analyzed rather than republished.