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Ethical Issues When Scraping the Web

May. 13, 2021 | Dwight Zahringer

A man with a suit on working on a laptop computer | Ethical Data Scraping

Ethical Issues to Think About for Data Scientists When Scraping the Web

Have you ever wondered about the ethics behind web scraping? It may not seem like an issue, but if a website blocks you after scraping data, it can become one. Ethical web scraping is essential to maintaining access to data from certain websites.

Start with a public API

One of the most important principles to follow with ethical web scraping is only to do so when you don’t have another option. Before web scraping, you should determine if the site in question has a public API and if that contains the data you want.

Then, you can avoid web scraping that website but still get the information you need. You can use the data for the same purposes as if you used web scraping. However, you won’t have to worry about getting blacklisted or experiencing other issues.

You can open your browser’s development tools to find a website’s API. You can then go to the network tab and see if the site has AJAX requests. If so, you can determine if it’s public and use it instead of web scraping.

Reasonable request rate

If the website in question doesn’t have a public API, you can follow other ethical web scraping practices. You could choose to build your own ethical web scraping tool in PHP or use the services of a recognized ethical web scraping tool.

If you choose to build your own, start with just one request from a website to get the hang of web scraping. Try not to request data too often, especially from the same website.

If you do, the site owner could confuse your requests for a DDoS attack. A Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack occurs when someone tries to block access to a network resource or machine. When this happens, a website can go down for a short period or indefinitely.

Minimizing your requests is a good option for how to prevent getting blacklisted while scraping. Consider if you need to web scrape more data and if you need to do so now. If not, wait a while so that you can keep web scraping in the future.

If you decide to use a pre-existing online web scraper instead, you have many options to choose from. The evolution of online services – including SAAS, PAAS, IAAS, and more – means that a wave of quality software is now available online for nearly any digital function. The same applies to web scraping; multiple ethical online web scraping tools exist. Having tested a few tools, we believe Zenscrape and Parsehub are the most ethical and effective online web extraction software.

A laptop computer sitting on a glass table with a glass of water and a pair of glass | Ethical data
Ethical web scraping is essential to maintaining data access.

Use an user-agent string

When ethical web scraping, you should always present a User-Agent string. The string can help you clarify your intentions to the website owner. It can also include your contact information if the website owner wants to reach out with questions or concerns.

User-agent strings can also cover the device, browser, and operating system you use. Not using a User-Agent string can make you appear like a bot. You can also use different User-Agents each time to avoid detection when web scraping.

However, you want to ensure the website owner can tell you’re not a bot. That way, you can avoid confusion regarding your intentions with web scraping.

Respond quickly

If a website owner contacts you, you should try to respond as quickly as possible. Be willing to work with the website owner to resolve any issues and answer their questions.

A website owner may block you temporarily because of security concerns or if your web scraping affects their website performance. The sooner you can work with a website owner, the sooner you can regain access to their site. However, make sure you follow ethical web scraping practices.

Create new value

It would be best if you also aimed to use the data you collect to create more value. Web scraping to simply duplicate data doesn’t do much for you, the site owner, or anyone else.

For example, perhaps you scrape stock data from a finance website. If that website makes it hard to compare the information, you can lay everything out differently. Then, you can make it easier to read, and you can help people who don’t have experience with stocks.

Consider how you can create something different or add value with your web scraping. That way, you can make sure your web scraping is ethical.

Minimize data scraping

You should only scrape the data you absolutely need. Using the example of stocks, think about if you need to scrape the data for stocks from a week ago. Maybe you only need the past few days to create a table anyone can read and understand. In that case, you should just use web scraping to collect that data.

Start small if you aren’t sure how much data you will need. You can collect more later, but be sure not to make too many requests to avoid being blacklisted.

When it comes to practicing web scraping, only practice on sites where you can use the data. You can also practice other steps, such as organizing the information. You should also respect the data you collect and only keep what you absolutely need.

A dog watching his owner type on a laptop computer | Ethical data scraping
When it comes to data scraping, start small.

Help the site owner

If you decide to share the data you collect, you should always cite your source. Doing so can give the website owner more recognition, and you may help bring traffic to that site.

Even if you can’t bring traffic, you can share the website name in an article you share using the data. The more you can give back to the website owner, the more willing they may be to let you use ethical web scraping on their site in the future.

Ethical vs. unethical web scraping

When considering ethical web scraping, you may wonder, “Is web scraping legal?” Fortunately, web scraping is legal, but it isn’t always ethical.

Web scraping is surprisingly easy, making it easy to do it a lot. However, web scraping at high volumes can be unethical, especially if the scraping is for a questionable purpose.

By clarifying your intentions and only web scraping when necessary, you can ensure you follow ethical web scraping practices. Then, you can continue web scraping without worrying about breaking any laws.

Young woman using laptop computer at home | Ethical data scraping
Always cite your source if you decide to share your data.

How will you scrape the web?

Because of how easy web scraping is, ethical web scraping is more important than ever. If you can follow certain standards when web scraping, you can avoid or minimize issues. Then, you can keep scraping data.

Be sure you think about the ethical issues of web scraping. That way, you can consider if there are any alternatives to scraping, such as public APIs. If not, you can scrape, knowing it’s your best option.

Photo Credits – Envato Elements