Civics: Why Web Scraping Is Vital to Democracy

The Markup:

The fruits of web scraping—using code to harvest data and information from websites—are all around us.

People build scrapers that can find every Applebee’s on the planet or collect congressional legislation and votes or track fancy watches for sale on fan websites. Businesses use scrapers to manage their online retail inventory and monitor competitors’ prices. Lots of well-known sites use scrapers to do things like track airline ticket prices and job listings. Google is essentially a giant, crawling web scraper.

Scrapers are also the tools of watchdogs and journalists, which is why The Markup filed an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this week that threatens to make scraping illegal.

The case itself—Van Buren v. United States—is not about scraping but rather a legal question regarding the prosecution of a Georgia police officer, Nathan Van Buren, who was bribed to look up confidential information in a law enforcement database. Van Buren was prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which prohibits unauthorized access to a computer network such as computer hacking, where someone breaks into a system to steal information (or, as dramatized in the 1980s classic movie “WarGames,” potentially start World War III).