By Emma Nitzsche
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a lower court ruling that would have permitted online businesses to scrape public information off of competitor’s websites.
The popular job site LinkedIn said its up-and-coming competitor, hiQ Labs, was stealing information from LinkedIn user’s public profiles. HiQ used the data to alert employers when potential workers were looking for a new job. In 2017, LinkedIn told hiQ to stop harvesting its users’ information, citing anti-hacking laws. HiQ refused to stop and sued LinkedIn on the basis of anti-competitive conduct.
After a federal judge granted its request for a preliminary injunction against LinkedIn, hiQ released a statement arguing that innovation on the internet should not be stifled by anti-competitive hoarding of public data by a small group of powerful companies.
In 2019, the Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a 2017 preliminary injunction to stand, requiring LinkedIn to give hiQ Labs access to publicly available user accounts. Circuit Judge Marsha Berze sided with the smaller company.
“LinkedIn has no protected property interest in the data contributed by its users, as the users retain ownership over their profiles. And as to the publicly available profiles, the users quite evidently minted them to be accessed by others,” said Judge Berze.
The ruling supported the idea that mining data on publicly accessible websites and servers is not in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
After the 9th Circuit reviewed the case, LinkedIn appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that hiQ’s software bots harvest data on a massive scale. The rate of information gathered with bots is far greater than what an individual human could accomplish by going through public profiles.
The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case and asked the lower court to reconsider their ruling in light of Van Buren v. United States, a decision that SCOTUS made just days earlier. In that case, the justices found that a person cannot violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act if they improperly access data on a computer that they have permission to use.
Other cases of data sharing have fostered similar online privacy concerns. Last year, Clearview AI was in hot water after compiling billions of photos for their facial recognition technology. The company claimed to have collected the photos from popular social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
With more people using online platforms to share personal information, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely address data sharing questions again. For now, tech users are encouraged to stay vigilant about the amount and types of information they put online.