Technology × Freedom

A California Judge Rules That Public Data Is, Um, Public

August 24, 2017 invisiblehand

In a twist on the “free and open internet” argument, a judge in San Francisco has ruled that LinkedIn can’t stop third-party companies from trawling publicly available user data. BBC reports:

The row began in May when LinkedIn sent HiQ Labs a cease and desist letter demanding it stop trawling LinkedIn’s public profiles for data - something that takes place, according to HiQ’s website, roughly every two weeks.

But HiQ won the court battle over one simple fact:

“HiQ doesn’t analyze private sections of LinkedIn,” a spokeswoman for HiQ Labs said via email on Monday. “We only review public profile information. We don’t republish or sell the data we collect. We only use it as the basis for the valuable analysis we provide to employers. Moreover, LinkedIn doesn’t own the data contained in member profiles. It is information the members themselves have decided to display publicly, and it is available to anyone with access to a web browser."

As BBC notes, this is really a simple case of LinkedIn (and its users) wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.

The usefulness of LinkedIn is in part due to its data being easy to access. If you’re hunting for a job you naturally want people to be able to find you. But in doing so, you don’t want your information being used in ways you did not anticipate.

That’s what LinkedIn is arguing it is trying to protect, and this ruling makes it hard for users to have one without the other.

I side with the judge, Edward Chen, on this one. If you want to be a nudist, you can’t demand that no one look at you as you parade around town in your birthday suit. Besides, I’m sure there are ways to code around this problem. I’m no programmer, but there must be a way for LinkedIn to set up access rules that can distinguish between a potential employer and a third-party data trawler.

Of course, the U.S. courts could always strong-arm consumer data protections via arbitrary legislation. But by picking winners, it would also create losers – namely, employees of the data trawling companies and the business owners who find their services valuable enough to pay for. This is exactly what the European Union is moving toward with its recently proposed Article 29 guidelines, which would make it illegal for employers to use social media to check on potential job candidates.

You might be tempted to consider such “protections” reasonable. They’re anything but. Such a law as the EU is proposing is essentially dictating that the owner of a private business isn’t allowed to view information that has been publicly posted by another individual because it might lead to discriminatory hiring practices. (Because how dare you think that the way a person conducts his personal life might have any correlation to his conduct as an employee!) Just like a nudist walking down the street might elicit harsh or demeaning reactions from onlookers; therefore, instead of stopping the nudist, we must stop the onlookers! Avert your gaze – ‘tis the law! The poor nudist must be protected!