EU Court hearing on right to surf the Internet anonymously

Is there a right to surf the Internet anonymously? Europe’s top court is to rule on whether website operators such as Google or Facebook may record which information Internet users read, post or search on the web — or whether citizens have a right to use the Internet anonymously. Thursday the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) will hear the case of German pirate party politician and privacy activist Patrick Breyer who is suing the German government over logging all visits to government websites (Case C-582/14).

Website operators often record and track their users online behaviour for commercial purposes, but also to disclose records to law enforcement agencies and owners of copyright-protected content upon request. Breyer is challenging this practise and demands that operators anonymize users‘ IP addresses:

„Banning governments and Internet giants from identifiably recording our browsing habits is the only way to effectively shield our private life and interests, to prevent erroneous infringement notices and false suspicions. IP addresses have turned out to be extremely prone to error und unreliable when used to identify users. For as long as browsing the Internet can result in prosecution, there is no real freedom of information and expression on-line.

Nobody has a right to record everything we do and say on-line. Generation Internet has a right to access information on-line just as unmonitored and without inhibition as our parents read the paper, listened to the radio or browsed books.“

The Court is to decide whether IP addresses transmitted when a website is accessed come under the EU’s privacy legislation and whether operators have a “legitimate interest” to record it along with users‘ “click stream”. Breyer says: „Websites can be safe without tracking every user across every page. This ‚Internet stalking‘ is about as useful as hanging a security camera next to an open warehouse door. We need secure IT systems, not a general suspicion against Europe’s Internet users.”

Prior to the hearing, the Court has requested the parties to discuss whether indiscriminate logging is necessary for „the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences“. Breyer: „The blanket retention of communications data having been rejected as a disproportionate interference with our fundamental right to privacy, recording the content of our online behaviour should be dismissed even more so.“

Breyer warns that the recently approved General Data Protection Regulation could thwart a success in court due to a lack of specific rules protecting on-line privacy. „The Commission should amend EU legislation to specifically prohibit any blanket recording of our Internet use by website operators. Europe should reject the ruthless method of ‚collecting it all‘ and enforce our right to freedom of information and expression in the digital age.“

Court notice

Case reports/analysis:

Comprehensive case information in German

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