When Public Profiles Become Private Property

Every time we post personal data on a social media platform, we’re making information about ourselves public. But really, what seems like public property that anyone can access, in fact, sometimes becomes someone else’s private property — as an interesting, ongoing case about who controls such data illustrates. 

hiQ is a self-styled “people analytics” company. Its business model involves scraping LinkedIn users’ public profiles, analyzing the data with a proprietary algorithm, and selling the results to employers looking to retain and train employees. 

Unfortunately for hiQ, such data scraping is prohibited by LinkedIn’s User Agreement.

In May 2017, LinkedIn sent hiQ a cease and desist letter.  It cited the violation of its User Agreement and demanded that hiQ stop its use of LinkedIn users’ public profile data. In response, hiQ filed suit in the Northern District of California and sought an injunction barring LinkedIn from claiming that hiQ was violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and California law. 

The District Court granted hiQ’s injunction in August 2017. 

In reaching this conclusion, the District Court held that hiQ’s interest in the survival of its business, which was threatened by LinkedIn’s demand that it cease and desist from scraping public LinkedIn data, was greater than LinkedIn’s interest in protecting the public profiles of its users. The Court also held that the public interest favored hiQ because LinkedIn was, in effect, seeking to eliminate hiQ as a competitor and establish a monopoly. (At the time it sent the cease and desist, LinkedIn was exploring providing services similar to hiQ’s.) 

LinkedIn appealed the injunction to the 9th Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of hiQ. LinkedIn next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which vacated the 9th Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case. In April 2022, the 9th Circuit again affirmed the District Court’s preliminary injunction in favor of hiQ.

While the issue of the injunction went to the 9th Circuit (twice) and SCOTUS (once), the parties were busy conducting discovery. At the end of discovery, each party filed a motion for summary judgment and the District Court ruled on these motions in November. 

On the whole, despite winning the initial battle over the injunction and the fact that it did score a few wins at the summary judgment stage, it’s safe to say that hiQ definitely came out on the losing end of things. In large part this is because LinkedIn’s cease and desist seems to have quite a chilling effect; it caused hiQ to lose funding and employees. 

hiQ’s losses didn’t end there. The District Court found that hiQ agreed to the terms of LinkedIn’s User Agreement, when it ran ads and created accounts on LinkedIn and, contrary to hiQ’s position,  the User Agreement unambiguously bars scraping. 

However, the Court did allow hiQ to proceed to trial on the issue of whether LinkedIn’s claims under the CFAA are barred by a two-year statute of limitation because there was evidence that LinkedIn employees were aware of hiQ’s activities for more than two years before it filed suit in 2017. At trial, a jury will have to determine if these employees’ knowledge can be imputed to LinkedIn. 

Despite hiQ being allowed to proceed to trial, overall LinkedIn came out ahead because, regardless of the outcome of this case, it effectively seems to have not only disposed of any competition from hiQ, but also effectively limited the ability of other entities that might try to monetize information that we, the public, freely provide to LinkedIn.