Facebook today says it has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. against two companies that had engaged in an international “data scraping” operation. The operation extended across Facebook properties, including both Facebook and Instagram, as well as other large websites and services, including Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn and YouTube. The companies, which gathered the data of Facebook users for “marketing intelligence” purposes, did so in violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service, says Facebook.
The businesses named in the lawsuit are Israeli-based BrandTotal Ltd. and Unimania Inc., a business incorporated in Delaware.
According to BrandTotal’s website, its company offers a real-time competitive intelligence platform that’s designed to give media, insights and analytics teams visibility into their competition’s social media strategy and paid campaigns. These insights would allow its customers to analyze and shift their budget allocation to target new opportunities, monitor trends and threats from emerging brands, optimize their ads and messaging and more.
Meanwhile, Unimania operated apps claimed to offer users the ability to access social networks in different ways. For example, Unimania offered apps that let you view Facebook via a mobile-web interface or alongside other social networks like Twitter. Another app let you view Instagram Stories anonymously, it claimed.
The former allowed users to save the ads they saw on Facebook for later reference. But as the extension’s page discloses, doing so would opt users into a panel that informed the advertising decisions of Unimania’s corporate customers. UpVote, on the other hand, rewarded users with gift cards for using top social networking and shopping sites and sharing their opinions about the online campaigns run by big brands.
Facebook says these extensions operated in violation of its protections against scraping and its terms of service. When users installed the extensions and visited Facebook websites, the extensions installed automated programs to scrape their name, user ID, gender, date of birth, relationship status, location information and other information related to their accounts. The data was then sent to a server shared by BrandTotal and Unimania.
Data scrapers exist in part to collect as much information as they can through any means possible using automated tools, like bots and scripts. Cambridge Analytica infamously scraped millions of Facebook profiles in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election in order to target undecided voters. Other data scraping operations use bots to monitor concert or event ticket prices in order to undercut competitors. Scraped data can also be used for marketing and advertising, or simply sold on to others.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has begun to pursue legal action against various developers that break its terms of service.
Most cases involving data scraping are litigated under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, written in the 1980s to prosecute computer hacking cases. Anyone who accesses a computer “without authorization” can face hefty fines or even prison time.
But because the law doesn’t specifically define what “authorized” access is and what isn’t, tech giants have seen mixed results in their efforts to shut down data scrapers.
LinkedIn lost its high-profile case against HiQ Labs in 2019 after an appeals court ruled that the scraper was only collecting data that was publicly available from the internet. Internet rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation lauded the decision, arguing that internet users should not face legal threats “simply for accessing publicly available information in a way that publishers object to.”
Facebook’s latest legal case is slightly different because the company is accusing BrandTotal of scraping Facebook profile data that wasn’t inherently public. Facebook says the accused data scraper used a browser extension installed on users’ computers to gain access to their Facebook profile data.
In March 2019, it took action against two Ukrainian developers who were harvesting data using quiz apps and browser extensions to scrape profile information and people’s friends lists, Facebook says. A court in California recently recommended a judgement in Facebook’s favor in the case. A separate case around scraping filed last year against a marketing partner, Stackla, also came back in Facebook’s favor.
Facebook isn’t just cracking down on data scraping businesses to protect user privacy, however. It’s because failing to do so can lead to large fines. Facebook at the beginning of this year was ordered to pay out over half a billion dollars to settle a class action lawsuit that alleged systemic violation of an Illinois privacy law. Last year, it settled with the FTC over privacy lapses and had to pay a $5 billion penalty. As governments work to further regulation of online privacy and data violations, fines like this could add up.
The company says legal action isn’t the only way it’s working to stop data scraping. It has also invested in technical teams and tools to monitor and detect suspicious activity and the use of unauthorized automation for scraping, it says.