LinkedIn
US judge ruled that social giant LinkedIn had to allow data scrapingCarl Court/Getty Images

LinkedIn, the social media platform for grown-ups, has been ordered by a US district judge to stop blocking a third-party data company's access to data on its users' public profiles – a ruling that backs up the long-held belief that nothing is truly free on the internet.

On 14 August, Judge Edward Chen ruled that LinkedIn had 24 hours to disable any software that was being used to prevent San Francisco startup hiQ Labs – which uses social networking data to help analyse the "flight risk" of employees - from scraping public information.

The conclusion came after months of legal back-and-forth. On 23 May 2017, court filings show, LinkedIn issued its first cease and desist letter against hiQ Labs.

The letter threatened action under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a wide-ranging US law.

In the case, LinkedIn's legal team said the company faced "significant harm" because hiQ Labs' data collection threatened the privacy of its userbase – because even members who had chosen to make their profiles public were still invested in how their data was used.

A significant fear was that some users may not want their employers to know when they are suddenly looking for other jobs.

"LinkedIn posits that when a user updates his profile, that action may signal to his employer that he is looking for a new position," the filing stated.

"We're disappointed in the court's ruling," LinkedIn spokeswoman Nicole Leverich told The New York Times (NYT) in a statement. "This case is not over. We will continue to fight to protect our members' ability to control the information they make available."

HiQ Labs sells its clients information about a selection of workforces but, according to the BBC, a representative claimed that it does not currently sell a service that alerts bosses to profile changes, nor can the company monitor every individual profile account.

"We were stunned by LinkedIn's actions, especially given their long-time familiarity with hiQ's business," said Mark Weidick, CEO of hiQ Labs. "I run a company whose very existence is tied to the notion of public data really being equally accessible to all members of the public."

"LinkedIn's attempt to wall-off this public information - viewable by anyone with a web browser - is not just a danger to hiQ, but to any company that uses public sources," he added.

Data scraping has become lucrative industry. Other firms, such as Dataminr, exist to ravage other platforms such as Twitter and then sell access to emerging trends or real-time updates. Ultimately, if an online service or social media website is free of charge: then you are the product.

Founded in 2002, LinkedIn is a social media website focused on professional networking. It currently boasts more than 500 million users; it was acquired by Microsoft in December 2016 for $26.2bn. HiQ Labs was founded in 2012 and has, to date, received $14.5m in funding.