The question on the legality of one of the most popular data gathering tool definitely grabs everyone’s attention. While many businesses use web data scraping to extract relevant information from multiple sources, there are few questions that we will address here. Before we get into the legal aspects, let us describe what web scraping or data scraping actually means.
What is Web Scraping?
Web data scraping is the process of drawing and combining information of your interest from the World Wide Web in an organized way. In other words, using web scraping you can automatically download a web-page’s data and extract precise information from it. What you need is a software agent, also called the web-robot, that mimics your browsing interaction between the web servers in a conventional web traversal. The robot accesses multiple websites, parses their contents to find the required data and stores the same in a structured format after extracting it. Many technological advancements are leading to innovative ways to data scraping, like IoT data scraping.
Let us touch upon a concept that often comes up and confuses most of us when we read about Web scraping: web crawling! So, what is web crawling? Web crawling entails downloading a web page’s data automatically, extracting the hyperlinks on the same and following them. This downloaded data can be organized in an index or a database, using a process called web indexing, to make it easily searchable.
How are the two techniques different? In simple terms, you can use web scraping to extract book reviews from the Goodreads website to rate and evaluate books. You can use this data for an array of analytical experiments. On the other hand, one of the most popular applications of a web crawler is to download data from multiple websites and build a search engine. Googlebot is Google’s own web crawler.
Why are people skeptical about Web Scraping?
In the recent past, you all must have sensed a lot of negative sentiment around the concept of web scraping. That might be the primary reason you are even here. Let us find out why web scraping is often seen negatively.
Web scraping basically replicates and automates your activity on clicking on links and copying and pasting data. To do so, a web scraper sends way more requests per second than you would be able to do in the same time frame. As you can imagine, this will create an unexpected load on websites. Web scraping engines can also opt to stay anonymous while extracting data from the website.
Additionally, scraping engines can circumvent the security measures that could prohibit automatic download of data from a website. This data could otherwise not be accessed. Many of us also believe that web scraping is an act of complete disregard of copyright laws along with Terms of Service. Terms of Service (ToS) usually contain clauses that bind a person legally by prohibiting him/her from crawling or extracting data in an automated fashion.
Having said that, it is evident that web scraping does not go well down with most industries and web-content owners. However, the question that arises here is, is it indeed illegal to scrape data from web pages using automated engines?
Is Data Scraping Illegal?
The short answer to the question? No, and Yes! Web data scraping is not illegal on its own. Certain conditions determine the legality of the activity. As an exercise, it, of course, is not illegal to extract data from your own website. Small-scale enterprises and startups use the tool because they can gather data in a cheap and efficient manner without making partnerships. The big companies rely on web scrapers too. However, they do not appreciate the fact when others use bots to scrape their data.
For a scraper to be legal, it must adhere to the following rules:
The data being scraped should not be copyright protected.
The act of data extraction should not burden the services of the site being scraped.
The scraper should not gather data that violates the basic sense of privacy and security like sensitive user information.
The information should be extracted as per the standards of fair use.
Thus, if you ensure that you have taken all these precautionary measures, ensured that the scraper is not violating any Terms of Service and haven’t caused any harm to the website by sending in too many requests in a given frame of time, you are good to go! Another important thing is that the data so pulled should not be used maliciously.
This is a significant concern for social media platforms, as the application of data analytics in the industry is on a rise. Sites like Facebook and LinkedIn have been in the news for detecting scraping engines raking through user profiles for data extraction. Pete Warden was threatened to be sued by Facebook if he published the user data that he had scraped from the social media platform.
Most companies engage in data scraping to gather competitor trends, conduct market research and do inquisitive analytics on their own data. The intention is to discover lost opportunities for revenue generation and gain financially. That being said, a lot of big, small and medium scale companies are investing in data scraping activities in a fair manner. Many others are violating the above rules and thus, facing legal issues.
One significant question that arises is, how do websites detect a scraper in the first place?
How do you ensure that the scraping exercise is not violating any rules?
Many suggest using APIs for data extraction instead of scraping if the website allows that. APIs are essentially interface modules that allow users to gather data without having to click on links and copy data repeatedly. You can directly extract all data in one go using APIs, that too without violating any regulations. However, scraping comes in handy when the website does not provide APIs for data extraction.
To detect scraping engines crawling over a website, they use the following methods:
Detection of unusually high traffic and requests ( or download rate) especially from a single client or IP address within a short time span.
Identifying a trend of repetitive tasks performed on the website since, in most cases, human users won’t perform the same repetitive tasks every time.
Detection through honeypot, Honeypots are traps, designed in the form of links which aren’t accessible by a typical human user but only by a web crawler or a spider. It raises warnings by tripping alarms when the spider tries to access the links.
Hence, how do you avoid raising alarms and still not break the rules? The first step is to ensure that the Terms of Service (ToS) are not broken. If a website clearly prohibits any kind of data crawling, scraping and indexing, it is safe to not pull data from the site using automated engines. The next step can be to check the rules in the robot.txt file. What is the robot.txt file? It is a file in the root directory of a website (for example, http://example.com/robots.txt) that specifies if the site permits scraping or not.
Since most of the websites want to be listed on the Google search results, not many prohibit crawlers and scrapers completely. It is still recommended to check for the requirements. If the ToS or robots.txt prohibit you from scraping, a written permission from the owner of the site before you begin data scraping can help you go ahead with your pursuits without the fear of any legal trouble.
You should also ensure that you are not loading too many requests in a short period of time onto the website. Do not overburden the website. Changing the trend of the scraping mechanism once in a while can help avoid detection of repetitive trends by the website. Please ensure that no derivation, reproduction or copy of the scraped data has been republished without verifying the license of the data, or without obtaining a written permission from the copyright holder of the data in question here.
You can also create a page for your scraping application to justify what you are trying to achieve with this data and how you will be using it. It allows you to explain yourself to everyone without attracting a lot of suspicion and interrogation. Given so many regulations, precautions and conditions, we understand it is tedious to go through the entire data scraping exercise by yourself.
There are a lot of open-source tools that can help you scrape data. While you can use all of them to extract the relevant data, there are several other companies like Datahut that can provide these services to you for the appropriate fee.
How can Datahut help you with web data scraping?
Many companies can do all these tasks for you, scrape the specified data for you and provide the same in a well-structured file format like .csv. Datahut is a significant player in this market. We shall assess your data requests, list the requirements down, conduct a systematic feasibility analysis and inform you well in advance about the quality and quantity of data that you can expect.
With a transparent and hassle-free process, Datahut ensures that the data-scraping exercise is a good experience for you. This will enable you to focus on the other analytical processes that need to be designed using this data. We have provided data scraping services to a wide array of clients across multiple industries, including the retail and media sector.
Wish to leverage Datahut’s Web Scraping Services to grow your business? Contact Datahut, your web data scraping experts.