In a defeat for 3Taps, a federal judge has refused to dismiss charges that it violated a computer fraud law by continuing to access Craigslist after the listings site tried to block visits from 3Taps' IP addresses.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer in the Northern District of California ruled on Friday that 3Taps potentially exceeded its “authorized access” to Craigslist by
continuing to scrape listings from the service against the site operator's instructions.
“Here, under the plain language of the statute, 3Taps was “without authorization” when it continued to pull data off of Craigslist’s Web site after Craigslist revoked its authorization to access the website,” Breyer wrote in an opinion issued on Friday.
The dispute between Craigslist and 3Taps dates to last summer, when Craigslist sued 3Taps and two other companies -- PadMapper and Lively -- for allegedly misappropriating real estate listings. PadMapper allegedly meshed Craigslist's apartment listings with Google maps -- which allows people to easily search for apartments by neighborhood. Lovely also allegedly drew on Craigslist's offered searchable apartment listings at Livelovely.com.
Both companies obtained the listings from 3Taps, which scraped Craigslist and makes data accessible to developers, according to Craigslist.
Craigslist sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that 3Taps stop scraping listings, and also attempted to block IP addresses connected to the company. 3Taps instead allegedly used a proxy server in order to circumvent the IP-blocking.
Earlier this year, Breyer ruled that the lawsuit could proceed, but said it was an “open question” whether the computer fraud law applies when the operator of a publicly available Web site attempts to restrict access by a competitor.
3Taps subsequently filed papers seeking dismissal of the computer fraud allegations. The company was backed by the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the computer fraud claims should not be allowed to proceed. The EFF argued that the computer fraud law “does not and should not impose liability on anyone who accesses information publicly available on the Internet.”
“When a Web site owner publishes information on the World Wide Web, they are authorizing others to view that information,” the EFF argues. “That is a major purpose of the Internet: to freely disseminate information and data to people all over the world.”
The digital rights group added that Craigslist's decision to make its site available without requiring passwords or user log-ins means should preclude its ability to accuse companies of accessing the site without authorization.
Breyer rejected those arguments, ruling that the computer fraud law allows Web site owners to “selectively” revoke authorization to their sites.
Craigslist's lawsuit against 3Taps is a civil matter, meaning that it can result in monetary damages, but doesn't involve the threat of prison. But the computer fraud law also carries criminal penalties, and some people have been prosecuted for allegedly violating the statute by exceeding authorized access to Web sites.
In one well-known case, Internet activist Aaron Swartz was indicted for computer fraud stemming from his use of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer network to download millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, an academic publisher. JSTOR didn't allow mass downloads and complained to MIT, which implemented technical barriers to prevent Swartz from accessing its network. Swartz got around those hurdles by changing his MAC address and IP address; the government said that doing so constituted criminal computer fraud. Swartz committed suicide earlier this year.
In another case, hacker Andrew Auernheimer was convicted of computer fraud after downloading email addresses that AT&T stored on a portion of its Web site that lacked password protection. The government argued that Auernheimer illegally accessed AT&T's servers without authorization. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is considering Auernheimer's appeal in that matter.