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Meta, which pays for web scraping, sues to stop web scraping

Social ad behemoth insists what it does it okay ... and what others do is not

Meta Platforms has sued an Israel-based web scraping firm called Bright Data for scraping data from its Facebook and Instagram websites – even though Meta paid Bright Data to scrape data from other websites.

This legal battle kicked off earlier last month when the two companies in fact sued each other. Meta two months prior had sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bright Data demanding that it stop collecting what the scraping firm characterizes as public data.

Bright Data disagreed with Meta's interpretation of its data collection rights and the two then headed to court – Meta seeking to halt Bright Data's data harvesting, and Bright Data seeking declaratory judgment from the court that gathering publicly accessible data from Facebook's website is lawful.

Bright Data filed its complaint [PDF] under seal, having been unable to get an answer from Meta about maintaining confidentiality.

But Meta's own complaint [PDF], via its accompanying exhibits, ended up disclosing the information Bright Data had redacted, a message from Bright Data citing the business relationship between the two firms: "Meta has long been a valued client of our proxy and scraping services for at least the last six years."

Meta, when it operated as Facebook, made a habit of suing people accused of web scraping, and of blocking experts' access to Facebook data. It also, per prior court documents, operated a program called Project Lighthouse through which it obtained data from partners to augment its ad systems. Yet, the social ad biz turned VR shop paid Bright Data for the sort of data gathering it now asks the court to stop.

In short, Meta has managed to expose its habit of harvesting data from other websites by suing a company it hired to do just that on its behalf.

In response to the media spotting the legal wrangling, Meta communications director Andy Stone claimed: "Bright Data was stealing people’s personal info and selling it; that’s not okay and it violates our rules.

"By contrast, finding harmful websites and identifying phishing operations – what we did – is not only helpful but important for companies like us to do. Those two activities aren’t the same thing and it’s irresponsible to suggest that they are."

Facebook's rules, for what they're worth, allowed developers to access all sorts of Facebook user data before the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light.

Bright Data for its part insists it's not obligated to follow Meta's rules because it searches only public data and has not agreed to the internet goliath's terms of service.

"This case is all about public data: whether the public has the right to search public information, or whether Meta can use the courts as a tool to eviscerate that right, even where Meta does not own the data at issue and has no property rights in it," Bright Data said in its motion [PDF] to unseal its complaint.

"If Bright Data loses this case, the losers are not just Bright Data but the public, whose rights are being taken away." ®

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