One of the most important assets of LinkedIn is the data it holds about all the companies which have set up accounts on its social media website, along with the data of many millions of executives who have done the same.
Such information provides a valuable resource to LinkedIn and would have been a big factor in the network’s multi-billion-dollar buyout by Microsoft.
But the resource is also valuable to outside companies which mine LinkedIn user data for a variety of purposes, not least of which is market research.
Many of these companies have themselves become multi-million-dollar businesses as a result of mining LinkedIn for information.
After Microsoft took over, the company decided to stop outside companies from using that valuable data.
LinkedIn and Microsoft argued that the data was “private property” and collection of it by outside companies by way of “unauthorised access” was in contravention of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and therefore against the law.
But the outside companies which were mining the data said it was public information and they were entitled to use it.
Moreover, a company called hiQ took Microsoft and LinkedIn to court and, now, a judge has just ruled in the startup’s favour, according to a report on the Wall Street Journal.
In a 25-page opinion, Judge Edward Chen said: “The Court is doubtful that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act may be invoked by LinkedIn to punish hiQ for accessing publicly available data.
“The broad interpretation of the CFAA advocated by LinkedIn, if adopted, could profoundly impact open access to the Internet, a result that Congress could not have intended when it enacted the CFAA.”
Chen said LinkedIn’s position would have allowed website owners everywhere to “block access by individuals or groups on the basis of race or gender discrimination”.
He added: “Political campaigns could block selected news media, or supporters of rival candidates, from accessing their websites.”
LinkedIn obviously did not agree and said it would continue to argue its case.
“We’re disappointed in the court’s ruling,” said LinkedIn in statement. ”This case is not over. We will continue to fight to protect our members’ ability to control the information they make available on LinkedIn.”
Outside companies, meanwhile, probably felt relieved since many of their revenue streams depend on data found on LinkedIn.
And hiQ said the decision was an “important victory – not just for hiQ, but for any company that uses publicly available data for the services it provides”.