Top EU Court: IP adresses are personal data

The EU’s Court of Justice (ECJ) today looked into whether website operators such as Google or Facebook may record which information Internet users read, post or searched on the web – or whether citizens have a right to use the Internet anonymously. The ruling concerns 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).

According to the court, users‘ IP addresses are personal data and may be collected only where allowed by data protection law.

The Court did not decide on whether website operators may retain IP addresses in bulk or whether the users privacy rights prevail. EU law does not give specific guidance on the matter.

Breyer calls on the Commission to act on the lack of specific EU 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 NSA method of ‚collecting it all‘ and enforce our right to freedom of information and expression in the digital age.“

Breyer argues that websites can be safe without tracking every user across every page: „This Internet stalking is about as useful as hanging a CCTV camera next to an open warehouse door. We need secure IT systems, not a general suspicion against Europe’s 400 million Internet users“.

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.“

Today’s ruling

Comprehensive case information in German

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