Siding against LinkedIn, a federal judge this week ordered the company to stop blocking the startup HiQ Labs from accessing publicly available data on the site.
U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen in the Northern District of California ruled that HiQ's business could suffer "irreparable harm" if prevented from accessing information about LinkedIn's members.
The 5-year-old HiQ scrapes LinkedIn's publicly available pages, analyzes the information to determine which employees are at risk of being poached, and then sells its findings to employers.
This May, LinkedIn demanded that HiQ stop scraping data from the service, arguing that HiQ's activity violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That anti-hacking law prohibits companies from accessing computer servers without authorization. The social networking service, now owned by Microsoft, also implemented technical measures aimed at blocking HiQ.
HiQ responded by suing LinkedIn, arguing that the company was acting anti-competitively. HiQ sought a declaratory judgment that it wasn't violating the anti-hacking law, and asked for an injunction requiring LinkedIn to stop blocking HiQ.
LinkedIn countered that it has the right to control its servers. The company also argued that HiQ was disregarding employees' privacy and that its products could harm them.
The social networking service said that even users who make their profiles public have a privacy interest in preventing third parties from analyzing the information. The company said that more than 50 million people have used its "do not broadcast" tool, which enables users to change their profiles without having other users notified of the revision.
This week, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen in the Northern District of Columbia sided with HiQ, ruling that the company was entitled to an injunction.
"hiQ unquestionably faces irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, as it will likely be driven out of business," Chen wrote. "The asserted harm LinkedIn faces, by contrast, is tied to its users' expectations of privacy and any impact on user trust in LinkedIn. However, those expectations are uncertain at best, and in any case, LinkedIns own actions do not appear to have zealously safeguarded those privacy interests."
Chen also preliminarily rejected LinkedIn's arguments that a company can violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by accessing publicly available web pages. That ruling appears to run contrary to a 2013 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer in the Northern District of California, who ruled that Craigslist could proceed with claims that the data scraper 3Taps violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by scraping publicly available listings.