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LinkedIn is the largest professional database in the world, with 500 million profiles. Of course, not all of them are active, but it is impressive nonetheless. For recruitment companies, the data on LinkedIn is a potential goldmine. However, the network is fighting one company in the courts, and it could have a profound impact on how its data is used.

HiQ Labs is a startup company that scrapes LinkedIn data to use for its own software. With the data, the company can predict whether an employee is likely to quit. HiQ scrapes its data from the limited amount of profiles that are publicly viewable. With an algorithm built from the data, the startup sells its software to companies to allow them to predict if employees will leave.

LinkedIn believes companies like hiQ should not be able to use its data for free. In response hiQ has taken the network to court, but the law in the United States is hardly clear on the matter.

While LinkedIn says its data is proprietary, some of it (public profiles) is available for anyone to see. The company goes as far as to say hiQ, and companies like it, violate hacking statutes by scraping data and violating the trust of its users.

“If members knew that hiQ was accessing and collecting their data in this manner, many would not update their profiles,” LinkedIn told the courts.

In response, hiQ CEO Mark Weidick said LinkedIn seems to be pushing his company out of the market:

“I’m a huge fan of the idea behind LinkedIn and always have been. I’ve been found, and found people, through the information we all choose to make public on LinkedIn. We understand LinkedIn wants to get into our business, and that’s fine. But LinkedIn is trying to illegally force out a smaller competitor so that they can have the business for themselves, plain and simple.”

Important Case

Speaking to ArsTechnica, James Grimmelmann of Cornell Law School said that the result of the case will be pivotal:

“Lots of businesses are built on connecting data from a lot of sources,” Grimmelmann said. He suggests should LinkedIn win, companies like hiQ are unlikely to be able to function.

One of the curious aspects of the case is that LinkedIn apparently wants to choose when its data is public, and when it restricted. Orin Kerr, a legal scholar at George Washington University says “You can’t publish to the world and then say ‘no, you can’t look at it'”.

U.S. law is fuzzy on the matter, but it does state to “access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access.” It is a statement that is wide open to interpretation, but LinkedIn is hoping it can convince courts that accessing data becomes a crime the moment a website company asks you to stop.

For example, visiting a public profile is fine, but if LinkedIn wants you not to, the law may be on its side.

It is worth noting that one of the fears when Microsoft acquired LinkedIn was the company would get access to the extensive data. If Redmond decided to shut off the data to everyone else, it would have an exclusive monopoly on the biggest professional database in the world.

Microsoft insisted it wanted to keep LinkedIn’s data accessible. How this legal battle happens will be extremely revealing and could set a major precedent.