Linkedin, the social network for professionals, has lost a US appeal court case over the use of its website data.
The ruling, in favour of an independent developer, could mean significant changes for the way data on the site is used, in future.
The enterprise in question, hiQ, develops predictive enterprise software. Their products include one that assits employee retention, by scraping social media posts and interpreting whether individuals are looking to leave their current job.
The appeal court judges ruled 3-0 that hiQ had a legal right to use data provided by Linkedin users and published on the site. The court heard that loss of access to public information could inhibit the survival of a viable business. US competition laws mean that hiQ – and businesses like theirs – should enjoy free use and access to publicly available information.
What will change?
The judgement is likely to have a broader impact than the test case itself. It could impact other social media companies – and influence the way they handle and present their data.
The ruling means that social media companies lose some of the control over public user data. To date, these networks have had a largely free reign over the information which has been shared with them by their users.
This has led to a situation where enterprises such as Linkedin have created a “tall wall” around user profiles – and frozen out independent companies that attempted to use that data.
Instead, Linkedin has opted to work with preferred partners – businesses that will collaborate with the network in developing useful tools and applications for corporate users.
The ruling would open the door to a floodgate of new development from third-party providers.
Social network for recruiters: a treasure trove of data?
But this is not necessarily the positive outcome that it may appear to be on first reading.
Linkedin is a treasure trove of personal user data. The enterprise has been able to leverage that data in the past, by providing access to selected service providers. If they are forced to change their business model in the future to accommodate independent developers, then we may see changes to the way the current network operates.
Linkedin has often moved swiftly to block tools and browser extentions that scrape user profile data. This has led to recruiters languishing in a so-called “Linkedin jail” where they are unable to access any of the site’s pages with their existing credentials.
The ruling may see the company re-deploy its “tall walls” in new and inventive ways. If some user data becomes locked behind new paywalls then the end-user experience will be diminished – and the site could experience significant loss of traffic.
Just as likely, however, is that the network will fight the ruling. This may take the form of another legal appeal. Though this may require the company to dispute access via an alternative route, given the successive failed appeals in this case.
They could also move to claim ownership of the public data on their site. Doing so would require nothing more than an update to their existing site terms of service. By transferring data ownership to their own business, Linkedin would no longer be obliged to share this information with third-party providers.
But there is a growing movement against corporate control of personal data. Accomplishing such a move in a legal fashion could prove difficult. Achieving it, and retaining the support and goodwill of their userbase may prove even trickier.
Outcomes to the benefit of all
The key for Linkedin will be to find an outcome which satisfies all parties involved.
The company is fundamentally about ensuring profits. It needs some way to monetise the information held on its website. To date, it has accomplished this – at least in part – through partnerships with chosen developers.
If this revenue stream is to shortly be eroded, the business will have to look at new ways to attract an audience and increase its value offering to the recruitment market.
And what about the users?
So far, we have looked at the corporate interests surrounding the case. But it was the expectations of the millions of users that proved most decisive in the court ruling.
In summary, the judge stated that:
“Users on LinkedIn create public profiles specifically to be found online”.
It is a valid point. Website users who visit Linkedin for employment opportunities would certainly prefer to be visible to as many recruiters as possible. A shortlist of preferred business partners will always represent a limiting experience to account holders and end-users.
Although a setback for the network, the ruling could therefore force the company’s hand. Perhaps the case will encourage websites to take bold steps towards future openness and expansion.