Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Late last year, Chegg Inc. (“Chegg”), an online learning platform, obtained a preliminary injunction based on allegations that the various operators of the Homeworkify website (“Defendants”) – which allows users to view Chegg’s paywalled solutions without creating an account – violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). (Chegg

On October 24, 2022, a Delaware district court held that certain claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) relating to the controversial practice of web scraping were sufficient to survive the defendant’s motion to dismiss. (Ryanair DAC v. Booking Holdings Inc., No. 20-01191 (D. Del. Oct. 24, 2022)). The opinion potentially breathes life into the use of the CFAA to combat unwanted scraping.

In the case, Ryanair DAC (“Ryanair”), a European low-fare airline, brought various claims against Booking Holdings Inc. (and its well-known suite of online travel and hotel booking websites) (collectively, “Defendants”) for allegedly scraping the ticketing portion of the Ryanair site. Ryanair asserted that the ticketing portion of the site is only accessible to logged-in users and therefore the data on the site is not public data.

The decision is important as it offers answers (at least from one district court) to several unsettled legal issues about the scope of CFAA liability related to screen scraping. In particular, the decision addresses:

  • the potential for vicarious liability under the CFAA (which is important as many entities retain third party service providers to perform scraping)
  • how a data scraper’s use of evasive measures (e.g., spoofed email addresses, rotating IP addresses) may be considered under a CFAA claim centered on an “intent to defraud”
  • clarification as to the potential role of technical website-access limitations in analyzing CFAA “unauthorized access” liability

To find answers to these questions, the court’s opinion distills the holdings of two important CFAA rulings from this year – the Supreme Court’s holding in Van Buren that adopted a narrow interpretation of “exceeds unauthorized access” under the CFAA and the Ninth Circuit’s holding in the screen scraping hiQ case where that court found that the concept of “without authorization” under the CFAA does not apply to “public” websites.

In a recent ruling, a California district court held that Apple, as operator of that App Store, was protected from liability for losses resulting from that type of fraudulent activity. (Diep v. Apple Inc., No. 21-10063 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 2, 2022)). This case is important in that, in

On May 19, 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had revised its policy regarding prosecution under the federal anti-hacking statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Since the DOJ last made changes to its CFAA policy in 2014, there have been a number of relevant developments in technology and business practices, most notably related to web scraping.  Among other things, the revised policy reflects aspects of the evolving views of this sometimes-controversial statute and the outcome of two major CFAA court decisions in the last year (the Ninth Circuit hiQ decision and the Supreme Court’s Van Buren decision), both of which adopted a narrow interpretation of the CFAA in situations beyond a traditional outside computer hacker scenario.

While the DOJ’s revised CFAA policy is only binding on federal CFAA criminal prosecution decisions (and could be amended by subsequent Administrations) and does not directly affect state prosecutions (including under the many state versions of the CFAA) or civil litigation in the area, it is likely to be relevant and influential in those situations as well, and in particular, with respect to web scraping. It seems that even the DOJ has conceded that the big hiQ and Van Buren court decisions have mostly (but not entirely) eliminated the threat of criminal prosecution under the CFAA when it comes to the scraping of “public” data. Still, as described below, the DOJ’s revisions to its policy, as written, are not entirely consistent with the hiQ decision.

In a closely-watched appeal, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, reversed an Eleventh Circuit decision and adopted a narrow interpretation of “exceeds unauthorized access” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), ruling that an individual “exceeds authorized access” when he or she accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer – such as files, folders, or databases – that are off limits to him or her. (Van Buren v. United States, No. 19-783, 593 U.S. ___ (June 3, 2021)). The majority equated “exceed[ing] authorized access” with the act of “entering a part of a system to which a computer user lacks access privileges,” rejecting the Government’s contention that a person who is authorized to access information from a protected computer for certain purposes violates CFAA Section 1030(a)(2) by accessing the computer with an improper purpose or motive. Put simply, the court’s view suggests a “gates-up-or-down” approach where the CFAA prohibits accessing data one is not authorized to access.

Although the case involved a criminal conviction under the CFAA, Van Buren gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to resolve a long-standing circuit split and heavily-litigated issue that arose in both criminal and civil cases under the CFAA’s “unauthorized access” provision. This provision of the CFAA is routinely pled in cases against former employees that have accessed proprietary data in their final days of employment for an improper purpose (e.g., for use in their new job or competing venture). It is also a common claim in disputes involving unwanted web scraping. On the latter point, the Court’s narrow interpretation of the “exceeds authorized access” provision would appear to be right in line with the narrow interpretations of the CFAA enunciated by the Ninth Circuit in its blockbuster hiQ opinion, which held that that when a computer network generally permits public access to its data, a user’s accessing that publicly available data will not constitute access “without authorization” under the CFAA and in its Power Ventures precedent, which held that, in the context of unwanted data scraping, a violation of the terms of use of a website, without more, cannot be the basis for civil liability under the CFAA.