A member of our department plans to download millions of profiles from a public website. The data is freely accessible after you have logged in, though there is a company behind the website that does have commercial interests and sells premium memberships. The website’s terms and conditions don’t explicitly prohibit mass downloading of information and he claims that his software would simulate normal user behavior, thus not interfering with the normal operations of the site.
A preliminary evaluation from our ethics committee suggests that – from an ethical standpoint – everything would be fine as long as he doesn’t publish the dataset (which he doesn’t plan to do) and the data is anonymized. Also, he will aggregate the data, so no information pertaining to individuals will be intelligible.
Still, I am not completely convinced that this study should be done and the final vote is still pending. Are there any other things to consider? Could the company operating the website possibly sue the university (or him) for using the data or would that be condoned by an act protecting the freedom of press or anything similar? We are in Germany, so German and EU law applies.