updated 04:02 pm EDT, Mon August 19, 2013
Ruling made in 3Taps versus Craigslist case launched in 2012
In what is likely to be a controversial ruling, Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern California District Court has ruled that changing IP addresses or using proxy servers to mask user identity and accessing public websites that a user has been prohibited from visiting is a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in the US. The ruling was handed down to ad aggregator 3Taps, who was accused of republishing Craigslist ads, in violation of the partially eBay-owned marketplace's terms of service.
In July of 2012, Craigslist filed a lawsuit against the data aggregation company 3Taps, in an effort to stop it from indexing and republishing the "classified" ads hosted on the array of Craigslist sites. Greg Kidd, founder and CEO of 3Taps, said of the suit that "while we respect what Craigslist has accomplished in the past in attaining dominance over online classified advertising, we object to them using that market power illegally to stifle innovation and hurt consumers. As Craigslist spends heavily to bully and intimidate companies that challenge them, consumers are deprived of better ways to find and execute real-time exchange transactions."
To circumvent the IP-level block imposed by Craigslist administrators to prevent the data collection, 3Taps used "different IP addresses and proxy servers to conceal its identity and continued scraping data" in an effort to contravene the Craigslist block, according to Judge Breyer.
3Taps petitioned the court to declare that the owner of a public website has no authority to prevent visitors from accessing the data of the website. The company argued that any ruling to the contrary would have larger implications beyond just this case, and lead to situations where companies would use anti-competitive practices by imposing access blocks on web content.
Judge Breyer wrote that without any language in the CFAA protecting the company explicitly, "3taps lets the cat out of the bag in the concluding section of its brief and urges consideration of 'serious policy concerns' raised by straightforward application of the CFAA's broad language. There, and sprinkled throughout its earlier, ostensibly text-based, arguments, 3taps posits outlandish scenarios where, for example, someone is criminally prosecuted for visiting a hypothetical website www.dontvisitme.com after a 'friend' -- apparently not a very good one -- says the site has beautiful pictures but the homepage says that no one is allowed to click on the links to view the pictures. Needless to say, the Court's decision does not speak to whether the CFAA would apply to other sets of facts where an unsuspecting individual somehow stumbles on to an unauthorized site."
The judge was concerned about the impact of this case overall, but perhaps not the way 3Taps wanted him to be. Breyer ruled that "3taps also invites this Court to make all manner of legislative judgments turning on, for example, the 'culture' of the Internet, the Court's view of whether accessing a website is more like window shopping from a public sidewalk or actually entering a store and whether 'a permission-based regime for public websites could implode the basic functioning of the internet itself.' 3taps opines that "the 'socially prudent' benefits of finding an implied license far outweigh any social utility derived from allowing a website owner to selectively block access to publicly available information, including by competitors. Maybe, or maybe not -- but it is certainly not for this Court to impose its views on those matters on unambiguous statutory language."