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Thomas M. Scheer / EyeEm via Getty Images

Anyone following Facebook’s recent woes with Cambridge Analytica might be surprised to hear that there's a civil liberties argument for swiping data from websites, even while violating their terms of service. In fact, there's a whole world of situations where that thinking could apply: bona fide academic research.

What's new: On Friday, a judge in a D.C. federal court ruled that an American Civil Liberties Union-backed case trying to guarantee researchers the ability to break sites' rules without being arrested could move forward, denying a federal motion to dismiss.

"What we’re talking about here is research in the public interest, finding out if there is discrimination,” Esha Bhandari, an ACLU attorney representing the academics, told Axios.

The details: A handful of researchers and First Look Media (which operates The Intercept and other sites) would like to use bots and create dummy accounts to test the behavior of employment and real estate websites.

  • The researchers are studying whether machine-learning algorithms on employment and real estate websites might have developed gender or racial bias. To do that, they would set up multiple similar accounts, changing only minority or gender status between them, and apply for jobs or housing.
  • That might violate the sites’ terms of service — and doing so, some courts have ruled, constitutes a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the major U.S. anti-hacking law.

Why it matters: Knowing whether or not websites are biased against women and minorities is a public good. But sites aren’t always eager to help researchers reach those kinds of conclusions about them. The Department of Justice is not currently using the CFAA to bludgeon researchers who expose discrimination online. But that’s only by internal policy. Without courts clarifying the law (or legislators changing it), that threat could hang over researchers and their work.

The decision: Judge John D. Bates denied the Justice Department’s argument that the researchers had no guaranteed legal right to access data on a publicly visible website.

Why this outrages people less than Cambridge Analytica: The results of the study will be for public consumption. And — obviously — no data will be used to target ads.

What the case doesn’t decide: The CFAA is not the only impediment to this kind of research.  Many academic publishers bar studies that depend on data accessed in violation of terms of service. Without a place to publish, there’s often no incentive to do the research.

  • Terms of service can defend sites' intellectual property and user privacy, but can also be used to protect a site's reputation and hide misbehavior. The CFAA allows for civil lawsuits, and a company could sue researchers producing research it doesn't like. The civil aspects of the law are not part of this case.

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
56 mins ago - Economy & Business

America on borrowed time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Economic recovery will not be linear as the world continues to grapple with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Why it matters: Despite being propped up by an extraordinary amount of fiscal stimulus and support from central banks, the state of the global economy remains fragile.

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 13 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.