We will find you and we will sue you, Twitter tells 4 mystery alleged data-scrapers

Lawyers say unknown John Does are profiting at Musk's expense

Elon Musk's X Corp, lately the parent company of Twitter, is suing four unknown individuals for scraping data from the bird site, claiming that the parties unjustly enriched themselves on the back of Twitter data.

X Corp filed the suit [PDF] in Dallas County District Court in Texas, and is seeking more than $1 million in damages. X Corp said it filed the case in Texas because it believes the unknown parties contracted with Texas-based data processing facilities, and unlawfully scraped data belonging to Texas residents.

"Scraping interferes with the legitimate operation of websites and mobile applications, including Twitter, by placing millions of requests that tax the capacity of servers and impair the experience of actual users," X Corp lawyers claimed in the complaint, trotting out familiar arguments that Musk has made for imposing rate limits and login requirements on Twitter users.

The recent actions to limit scrapers on Twitter were referenced as justifications for the lawsuit.

"In response to massive demands on Corp's servers from extremely aggressive data-scrapers, X Corp has instituted [the aforementioned] limits," the complaint continued, adding that despite its efforts "data scrapers continue to aggressively target and attempt to unlawfully scrape Twitter user data."

Twitter alleged the four unnamed defendants, identified in the suit only by IP addresses, were flooding Twitter's sign-up page with automated requests that "severely taxed X Corp's servers and impaired the user experience for millions."

The IP addresses, which the suit claims can be identified by lookup requests as being located in Fremont, California, and Atlanta, Georgia, are all Twitter has to go on, it said in the complaint. "X Corp. has been unable to ascertain the identity of John Does 1-4."

Who enriched who in the what now?

Despite claiming it has no idea who did the scraping, X Corp alleged that those responsible "unjustly enriched" themselves at X Corp's expense by acting without authorization to scrape Twitter data.

"Defendants receive benefits in the form of profits from their unauthorized scraping of Twitter data," Musk's legal team claims. Thus, "defendants' retention of the profits derived from their unauthorized scraping of data would be unjust."

X Corp lawyers apparently plan to figure out who the four IP addresses belong to as part of the discovery phase of the trial, but even then the legal argument in the case may be a tough one to prove.

The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that scraping data from public websites is perfectly legal, and that gating publicly accessible content from web scrapers wasn't permissible under current US law and case precedent.

Twitter lawyers aren't taking that approach, however, and are taking the unjust enrichment route instead. That still may not be easy to prove as a 2020 Fifth Circuit case that set the "unjust enrichment" scraping limitation precedent is a bit more complicated than just a simple request to "stop scraping my public website."

That case, an appeal in a fight between two oil industry data companies, Digidrill and Petrolink, involved Petrolink somehow obtaining a laptop that contained Digidrill software. Petrolink allegedly built a program to siphon data from a Digidrill database on the laptop, which Digidrill argued allowed Petrolink to unjustly enrich itself. While the Fifth Circuit shot down several of Digidrill's arguments, it allowed the unjust enrichment claim to stand.

"Under Texas law an unjust enrichment claim requires showing that one party 'has obtained a benefit from another by fraud, duress, or the taking of an undue advantage,'" the Fifth Circuit said in its 2020 decision. 

That's clearly the case when the scraping is of an internal database accessed from another company's software on a questionably acquired laptop. Whether that's the case with Twitter, a public-facing website, will be up to the lawyers and judge to decide. 

Twitter didn't respond to questions and requests for comment. ®

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