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State Court Administration faces legal challenge to data scraping ban

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SC Supreme Court
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A group of civil liberties organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the state Court Administration’s ban on “scraping,” the process of automatically collecting publicly available data online.

Scraping is legal, and often used by researchers and journalists looking to compile datasets, but it is also controversial. Privacy advocates and government agencies around the United States argue that being able to scrape data automatically is tantamount to opening the door for internet bots to scoop up personal information.

First Amendment advocates – and the group of challengers to the South Carolina Court Administration’s ban, which include national and state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP – argue that the data scraped is already publicly available.

So the issue is not that non-public data is at risk, but rather the speed and efficiency with which researchers can access and record data that are publicly available. The ACLU/NAACP lawsuit specifically cites the need for scraping to reach residents facing eviction – something the group is arguing disproportionately affects Black South Carolinians.

“Scraping is a legitimate method of collecting information online that is often necessary to efficiently and systematically gather records that might not otherwise be possible to record,” the group said in a statement Wednesday. “The lawsuit asserts that the South Carolina Court Administration is violating the First Amendment by prohibiting scraping of its court docket information, which is already publicly available online.”

Allen Chaney, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina, said in the statement that “[m]odern American courts churn out case filings at a rate unimaginable to our Founders. For the public to have a meaningful discussion about the role our courts play in matters of public concern, the right to use noninvasive technical means to capture public court information must be protected. This case is about ensuring core First Amendment principles, like the right to access public court filings, are applied in a way that meets our rapidly expanding digital reality.”

The group also says the ban keeps housing advocates from finding violations of the Fair Housing Act more efficiently.

The data are still publicly available, but the group is arguing that the time spent sifting through records manually puts housing-insecure South Carolinians at risk of time running out before help arrives.

The full complaint can be found at:

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.