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Is Web Scraping Legal? Why Ethical Web Scraping Is The Best Choice

Web scraping and crawling are powerful tools that enable the extraction of large amounts of data from the internet. While these techniques are not illegal in and of themselves, their application can quickly enter dubious territory when used for harmful activities, such as competitive data mining, online fraud, account hijacking, and stealing intellectual property. The essence is simple: the act of web scraping isn’t inherently illegal, but certain boundaries exist. For instance, every web scraper bears the responsibility to respect the rights of websites and companies from which they extract data. Moreover, extracting non-publicly available data breaches ethical and potentially legal parameters. 

This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. While Ficstar has an experienced team of web scraping experts and a dedicated legal team, the nuances of web scraping laws and website policies can vary significantly. We strongly advise that you thoroughly read the policy of each website you interact with. Additionally, familiarize yourself with the laws related to web scraping in your specific location. If any questions or uncertainties arise, it’s essential to seek professional legal advice to ensure you navigate these complexities correctly and compliantly.

How to know if data on the internet is considered publicly available:

Determining if data on the internet is publicly available is crucial for ethical and legal considerations, especially in the context of data extraction and web scraping. Here’s a guide to help ascertain if the data you’re considering is publicly available:

  • No Login Required: Data that doesn’t require a user to sign in or authenticate their identity is typically considered publicly available. Websites open to anyone with internet access, like news sites or public blogs, generally contain public information.
  • No Paywall or Subscription: If the information is behind a paywall or requires a subscription, it’s not publicly available. Many news outlets and journals restrict full access to their content, offering only teasers or summaries to non-subscribers.
  • Robots.txt File: Websites use the robots.txt file to communicate with web crawlers about what parts of their site should not be processed or scanned. If a section of the website is disallowed in the robots.txt, it’s an indication that the website owner does not want that data to be publicly accessed or scraped.
  • Explicit Markings: Data or content explicitly marked as “public,” “open,” or “free to use” is usually publicly available. However, always ensure you understand any attached licenses or terms of use.

It’s crucial to remember that “publicly available” doesn’t always mean “free to use for any purpose.” Many websites have data that is publicly viewable but may have restrictions on downloading, distributing, or using that data for commercial purposes. Always consult the website’s terms and consider seeking legal advice when in doubt.

Understanding the Legal Nuances and Ethical Implications of Web Scraping

In the expansive world of web scraping, misconceptions about its legality are rife. Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all law declaring it illegal, the core of the debate often orbits around ethics. Overlooking these ethical nuances can sometimes escalate into legal challenges, especially given the divergent legal frameworks of the US and EU. For individuals or entities anywhere in the world, having a grasp of these jurisdictions’ regulations is paramount, especially if aiming to extract data from a US-centric website.

 Website owners can use, but are not limited to, four major legal claims to prevent undesired web scraping: 

Website’s Terms of Service (ToS)

Website’s Terms of Service (ToS) play a cardinal role in the scraping journey. Predominantly, websites employ two main types of online agreements: browsewrap and clickwrap.

  • Browsewrap: Such agreements, typically nestled discreetly at the page’s bottom, can be easily overlooked. Although users do not actively signify their agreement, by merely using the site, they’re assumed to have acquiesced. However, due to its subdued presence, many legal spheres do not consider browsewrap as a binding contract.
  • Clickwrap: Standing in contrast, clickwrap agreements necessitate an active user acknowledgment, often through an “I agree” prompt. This explicit agreement denotes a contract between the user and the website, binding them to the set terms.

Upon agreeing to a website’s Terms of Service, especially through clickwrap, users effectively initiate a contractual bond with the site. Any contravention, notably for web scrapers, might usher in legal consequences.

It’s worth emphasizing the value of professional counsel in this domain. A reputable company intending to engage in web scraping will often onboard lawyers who meticulously analyze targeted websites. These legal experts delve deep into the Terms of Service, offering clear insights on whether data extraction is permissible. Such a measure not only safeguards the company’s interests but also ensures an ethical approach to data acquisition.


The Intricacies of Copyright in Web Scraping

Copyright is a legal concept that provides creators of original works exclusive rights to their intellectual property, typically for a limited period of time. This means that the creator (or copyright holder) has the sole right to reproduce, distribute, perform, or adapt their creation. In the context of web scraping, this becomes pertinent as many online contents, unless explicitly mentioned otherwise, are protected by copyright laws.

In the vast online landscape, a plethora of content types can fall under copyright protection. This includes articles, videos, pictures, stories, music, and even databases. Scraping and using such content without appropriate permissions can lead to copyright infringements.

While copyright laws are stringent, there are certain exceptions that allow specific kinds of content to be scraped and used. Some of these exceptions are: Research, News Reporting, and Parody. Other considerations include: 

  • Facts

It’s essential to distinguish between creative content and simple facts. Facts are not copyrightable. For instance, a product’s price is a mere fact, not a tangible piece of work protected by copyright. Similarly, the name and basic information about a product or service is also considered a fact and is not copyrighted.

  • Fair Use and Transformational Use

The ‘fair use’ doctrine is a cornerstone of U.S. copyright law, allowing limited use of copyrighted content without the need for permission. This principle hinges on several factors, including the intent behind using the material (e.g., commercial vs. educational) and its impact on the original work’s value. Meanwhile, ‘transformational use’ comes into play when the original content undergoes significant changes, leading to a new piece with distinct meaning or message. This kind of transformative work often aligns with fair use, as it introduces fresh expression rather than merely duplicating the original.

Understanding the nuances of copyright is paramount. Navigating this landscape requires a judicious balance of legal knowledge and ethical considerations.


Data Protection in Web Scraping: Prioritizing Personal Privacy

Acquiring and using personal data without proper authorization not only brushes up against ethical boundaries but can also ensnare one in serious legal implications. Personal data encompasses any piece of information that can directly or indirectly peg an identity to an individual. These identifiers span:

  • Names
  • Email Addresses
  • Phone Numbers
  • IP Addresses
  • Photographs
  • Location Data
  • Social Media Usernames
  • Biometric Data

Gathering or utilizing these elements without express consent can breach privacy norms and contravene stringent regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s crucial to note that while the GDPR does encompass exceptions, the fact that an individual has made their information publicly accessible doesn’t exempt it from GDPR’s purview. In essence, even if personal data is public, it remains safeguarded by the GDPR. This underscores the regulation’s overarching emphasis on protecting personal information, irrespective of its public or private stature.

Before undertaking any web scraping activity that might intersect with the collection of personal data, it’s crucial to engage with a legal expert. Many Enterprise-level web scraping service providers such as Ficstar explicitly state its non-engagement in personal data extraction. 


CFAA and its Application to Web Scraping

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a U.S. legislation initiated in 1986, was designed primarily to combat computer-related offenses. Over the years, its application has broadened, notably affecting areas like web scraping, although not directly related to it. 

The CFAA primarily addresses unauthorized access to computer systems, such as accessing a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access and subsequently obtaining information from any protected computer.

As web scraping typically involves accessing a website and extracting data from it, scraping can sometimes cross legal boundaries under CFAA.

It’s crucial for companies and individuals involved in web scraping to be aware of the CFAA’s provisions and ensure their scraping activities do not contravene this legislation. Given the evolving nature of case law surrounding the CFAA and web scraping, it’s also recommended to consult with legal professionals to stay abreast of any changes.



Web scraping is legal if you scrape data publicly available on the internet. However, to navigate ethical and legal issues when extracting data from websites, you must pay special attention to the following: 

  • Do not violate copyright laws
  • Do not breach the GDPR regulation
  • Do not harm the website’s operations
  • Beware of the website’s terms and conditions on content
  • When in doubt, seek legal advice
  • Work with a reputable web scraping company with a history of success

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