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I am a developer and I work for a start up. My boss assigned me a task of checking two career-related networking sites. I need to programmatically visit these sites, and check whether they have a link for each entity in our database or not. If yes, I need to save their link to our database. The task description he wrote contained some strange wording that raised my suspicion. I learned that the companies in question not only did not give their consent to be queried, but also they already turned our approach down. I am within my probationary period, generally I liked the job. I had some interesting and completely OK tasks in the recent months only this last assignment seems to be fishy. I am not a lawyer. I work and live in a foreign country and I have limited knowledge of the language. It would be extremely hard for me to research whether it is legally OK, or not. We -as a company- have no legal department (As a matter of fact I never worked for any company that had one.). What I do have is a general bad feeling. I believe in business relationships based on mutual consent (and mutual benefit) and the lack thereof compromises my moral compass and grossly reduces my enthusiasm.

The bottom line: I do not want to do anything that may later fall back on me. Nor do I want to act unethically. How can I handle this situation?

Update:

So you're just scraping third-party sites? Is the scraped data just used internally, or is it incorporated into one of your products? Is the data private/behind a login screen?

Yes, the scraped data will be incorporated into our product, and will be visible online.

Is the data private/behind a login screen? I think available without logging in, but I am not sure.

Update: I just had a conversation with my boss, and I politely refused the task. We agreed that I leave the company.

marked as duplicate by Jim G., Dawny33, Jan Doggen, Chris E, gnat Apr 20 '16 at 17:27

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  • So you're just scraping third-party sites? Is the scraped data just used internally, or is it incorporated into one of your products? Is the data private/behind a login screen? – jwodder Apr 20 '16 at 0:10
  • If you're just loading their pages, I don't see where the ethical problem is. If the company wanted to block you, they would. – Brandin Apr 20 '16 at 0:14
  • They are very well aware of the fact that the company might block me, that's why they give me the instruction to try to avoid being blocked. – Megharapta Apr 20 '16 at 5:32
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    Is the data open to search engines (e.g. there is no robots.txt restriction)? If so I think it is fair game to fetch it. But incorporating it into your product is another ethical and legal question (copyrights, etc.). – Brandin Apr 20 '16 at 6:21
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    the recent change in the stackexchange terms of service are related to this kind of scraping. Do read this. It'll give you some insight in how the targeted sites see this kind of usage. – Jeremy Apr 20 '16 at 10:51
up vote 1 down vote accepted

It is quite likely that scraping, and especially reusing the data in your product, breaks their terms of service, and therefore is illegal.

The question of whether you, personally, would be legally liable as an employee is one for a lawyer. However, I would not be comfortable participating in something illegal in any case. Here is how I would handle it:

  • Check the site terms of service to see if it is indeed a problem. Even if the company has a legal department, I would probably check myself first to see if I think there is a real problem, before raising this as an issue. Raising the task the boss just asked me to do with the legal department would be perceived as rather hostile to my boss--I would not want to do this until I thought there was a problem and had discussed it with the boss first.
  • Raise it as a concern with my boss. Assume good faith on everyone's part (assume that they just hadn't noticed they were breaking the TOS, rather than intentionally circumventing it).
  • If the boss's position doesn't change, raise it with your boss's boss if there is one.
  • If the company position does not change, refuse to work on the task. Obviously this may have some serious consequences for you--but in my mind this is the right thing to do and will be worth it in the long run.

Also I would start looking for a new job as soon as I had established that something fishy was going on. This is not the work environment I would want to be in, nor does it bode well for the startup.

  • 4
    "Terms of service, and therefore is illegal" uh.. What? Terms of service are obviously not legally binding. Can you imagine if they were? No one reads them, you could just write that every person using the site has to pay $1 million. They are just site rules; if you break them, you can get banned from the site and that's about it. They can't change what is legal or not legal, compared to if the site didn't have a ToS. – Andreas Bonini Apr 23 '16 at 9:22
  • @AndreasBonini I'm not a lawyer. However, Wikipedia and the source it references state that Terms of Service agreements are generally legally binding unless they conflict with law. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terms_of_service. – user45590 Apr 23 '16 at 9:34
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    wikipedia used "pcmag.com" as a source for that... This is an answer from an actual lawyer: quora.com/… . Just by googling the question, all the top results say websites TOS are not legally binding – Andreas Bonini Apr 23 '16 at 9:38
  • IANAL, TINLA, etc. That usually means if you break our ToS we won't let you use our site anymore, similarly to if you get drunk and rowdy we'll kick you out of our bar – rath Apr 23 '16 at 11:59
  • @dan1111 - I think it is fair to say that scraping against a company's consent opens up the possibility for a lawsuit, but is often not illegal. Here is a Forbes article about a suit between QVC and Resultly (forbes.com/sites/ericgoldman/2015/03/24/…). I've also read other suits regarding Google (note their recent Google Books suit) and the scraper won. However, I didn't endeavor to make a deep study of it. – Ian Apr 28 '16 at 18:48

Have you asked your employer's legal department? This sort of question is exactly why they are there; they can look at all the details and give you an expert opinion, and if the answer is "don't" they are in a position to argue this with your boss.

We don't (and probsbly shouldn't) have all the details, can't give you legal advice, and have no sway with your boss.

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    The question says "I work for a start up". Startups are usually not large enough to have a dedicated legal department. A good startup founder should have an independent attorney on speed dial, though. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to be a good startup founder. – Philipp Apr 20 '16 at 13:44
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    Every website has their own TOS, which is a legal document. The TOS often covers this sort of case. Refer that to your legal dept. If you don't have a legal dept, then read and interpret yourself, but at your own risk. Note that you may simply be working for a company that doesn't mind being working in a legal grey area... you'll have to decide if you're comfortable with that. – eykanal Apr 20 '16 at 13:45
  • Although I appreciate your good will for taking the time to answer my question I just had to hit -1 for mentioning legal department. I don't know how it is in your part of the world but actually I never had the privilege to work for a company that had one. I edited the question to reflect this fact. Actually I believe that very few companies below a certain size have legal departments in Europe. Legal departments for start- ups? I guess they are as frequent as polar bears in the Sahara – Megharapta Apr 30 '16 at 17:54
  • There will be someone in your company whov is responsible for legal compliance. They may or may not be a lawyer themselves, but they will be responsible for guiding when legal assistance is required. If you can determine who this is, ask them. If you can't, pick an executive, send the query with an apology that you didn't know who else should hear this, and let them decide who to route it to. – keshlam Apr 30 '16 at 17:59

I am not a lawyer, but I believe that scraping a website without permission will just get your company into legal trouble, and not you personally. But you should consult a lawyer to make sure.

But even when the risk is only for your company, it's a bad idea. Building a business based on scraping websites which don't want to be scraped is not going to work. They will take both legal and technical actions to prevent your company from doing this, so your service will break any day. When this is the main product of your company, then it will soon go bankrupt and be unable to pay your wage. So no matter if you get fired for not obeying or get sacked for obeying, you will need a new job soon.

If you are insistent on keeping your job, your only option is to convince your boss to look for a more viable business model.

Querying public accessible data from websites is most probably no big deal from a legal perspective (but don't nail me on that, I am no lawyer nor do I work in the internet business).

More general advise would be to document the task description he gave you. As I understood it is already in writing. If the queried companies start legal actions against your employer you can point at the task description and say "hey, I only followed orders!". But as stated in the comments, liability may vary between countries.

You are of course not protected if you act in gross negligence or deliberately break the law. But I don't see that this would apply here.

I suspect you are overthinking this. Of course you can act brave and refuse to do the task. But this could result in them firing you. All boils down to a personal decision. If you feel strong enough about the whole topic. The best course of action would be to talk to your boss about it (you already did, that's good). If he insists, you also can talk to your legal department if you have one (I suspect not).

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    -1. Saying OP is legally protected just because someone told him or her to do a task, when you are not a lawyer, is a terrible advice. In some countries (and I'm guessing most of them), if you are a professional (i.e. have a valid degree), you are responsible for your professional actions. Therefore, he could be responsible for doing illegal things. – Charmander Apr 20 '16 at 13:37
  • @Charmander Okay, saying that plainly may be a mistake. Where I come from (Germany) you are protected if you are acting under the operations of your company. Problems would only arise if you act on your own. – jwsc Apr 20 '16 at 13:42

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