While driving on a long trip this weekend, I had a bit of time to think. One topic that came to my mind was screen scraping, with a focus on APIs. It hit me: screen scraping is more of a problem with the content producer than it is with the “unauthorized scraping” application.

Screen scraping is the process of taking information that is rendered on the client, and then transforming the information in another process. Typically, the information that is obtained is later processed for filtering, saving, or making a calculation on the information. Everyone has performed some [legitimate form] of screen scraping. When you print a web page, the content is reformatted to be printed. Many of the unauthorized formats of screen scraping have been collecting information on current gambling games [poker, etc], redirecting capchas, and collecting airline fare/availability information.

The scrapee’s [the organization that the scraper is targeting] argument against the process is typically a claim that the tool puts an unusual demand on their service. Typically this demand does not provide them with their usual predictable probability of profit that they are used to. Another argument is that the scraper provides an unfair advantage to other users on the service. In most cases, the scrapee fights against this in legal or technical manners. A third argument is that the content is being misappropriated, or some value is being gained by the scraper and defrauded from the scrapee.

The problem I have with the fighting back against scrapers, is that it never solves the problem that the scrapers try to fix. Let’s take a few examples to go over my point: the KVS tool, TV schedules, and poker bots. The KVS tool uses [frequently updated] plugins to scrape airline sites to get accurate pricing and seat availability details. The tool is really good for people that want to get a fair bit of information on what fares are available and when. It does not provide any information that was not provided by anyone else. It just made many more queries than most people can do manually. Airlines fight against this because they make a lot of money on uninformed users. Their business model is to guarantee that their passengers are not buying up cheap seats. When an airline claims that they have a “lowest price guarantee” that typically means that they show the discount tickets for as long as possible, until they’re gone.

Another case where web scraping has caused another issue is with TV schedules. With the MythTV craze a few years ago, many open source users were using MythTV to record programs via their TV card. It’s a great technology, however the schedule is not provided in the cable TV feed, at least in an unencrypted manner. Users had to resort to scrapping television sites for publicly available “copyrighted” schedules.

The Poker-bots are a little bit of an ethical issue. This is something that differs from the real world rules of the game. When playing poker outside of the internet, players do not have access to real-time statistic tools. Online poker providers aggressively fight against the bots. It makes sense; bots can perform the calculations a lot faster than humans can.

Service providers try to block scrapers in a few different ways. The end of the Wikipedia article lists more; this is a shortened version. Web sites try to deny/misinform scrapers in a few manners: profile the web request traffic (clients that have difficulty with cookies, and do not load JavaScript/images are big warning signs), block the requesting provider, provide “invisible false data” (honeypot-like paths on the content), etc. Application-based services [Pokerbots] are more focused on trying to look for processes that may influence the running executable, securing the internal message handling, and sometimes record the session (also typically done on MMORPGs)

In the three cases, my point is not to argue why the service is justified in attempting to block them, my point is that the service providers are ignoring an untapped secondary market. Those service providers have refused to address the needs of this market - or maybe just haven’t seen the market as viable, and are merely ignoring it.

If people wish to make poker bots, create a service that allows just the bots to compete against each other. The developers of these bots are [generally] interested in the technology, not so much the part about ripping-off non-bot users.

For airlines, do not try to hide your data. Open up API keys for individual users. If an individual user is trying to abuse the data to resell it, to create a Hipmunk/Kayak clone, revoke the key. Even if the individual user’s service request don’t fit the profile; there are ways of catching this behavior. Mapmakers have solved this problem a long time ago by creating trap streets. Scrapers are typically used as a last resort, they’re used to do something that the current process is made very difficult to do.

Warning more ranting: with airline sites, it’s difficult to get a very good impression on the cost differences of flying to different markets [like flying from Greensboro rather than Charlotte] or even changing tickets, so purchasing from an airline is difficult without the aid of this kind of tool. Most customers want to book a single round trip ticket, but some may have a complex itinerary that will have them leaving Charlotte stopping over in Texas, then to San Francisco, and then returning to Texas and flying back to my original destination. That could be accomplished by purchasing separate round trip tickets, but the rules of the tickets allow such combinations to exist on a single literary. Why not allow your users to take advantage of these rules [without the aid of a costly customer service representative]?

People who use scrapers do not represent the majority of the service’s customers. In the case of the television schedules example, they do not profit off the information, and the content that they wished to retrieve wasn’t even motivated by profit. Luckily, an organization stepped in and provided this information at a reasonable [$25/yr] cost. The organization is SchedulesDirect.

The silver lining to the battle on scrapers can get interesting. The PokerClients have prompted scraper developers to come up with clever solutions. The “Coding the Wheel” blog has an interesting article about this and how they inject DLLs into running applications, use OCR, and abuse Windows Message Handles [again of another process]. Web scraping introduces interesting topics that deal with machine learning [to create profiles], and identifying usage patterns.

In conclusion, solve the issue that the screen scrapers attempt to solve, and if you have a situation like poker, prevent the behavior you wish to deny.