Written by Jan Pohle and Jan Spittka
In its landmark decision in the case Breyer v. Federal Republic of Germany (decision dated 19 October 2016, case number C-582/14), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) not only ended the long and tricky debate whether dynamic IP addresses constitute personal data even if the data controller processing the IP addresses does not hold the means to link it to the respective data subject. The court also came to the conclusion the provisions of German law dealing with the processing of personal data in the online environment do not comply with the EU Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46/EC) as these provision do not provide for a statutory permission to process personal data based on a balancing of interest between legitimate interest of the data controller and the interest of the data subjects.
The case has been presented to the ECJ by the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof – “BGH“). The claimant Mr. Breyer had sued the German Federal Department of Justice and Consumer Protection (Bundesministerium für Justiz und Verbraucherschutz – “BMJV“) to cease-and-desist the registration and storing of his dynamic IP address after visiting the BMJV’s websites. The BMJV argued that IP addresses have to be retained after the end of the visit of the website to protect itself against cyberattacks. The BGH asked the ECJ whether dynamic IP addresses constitute personal data with respect to an “online media service provider” (i.e. the operator of a website), if only a third party (here the internet service provider) holds the additional data necessary to identify a visitor of this website. Furthermore, the BGH asked whether the operator of a website has the possibility to collect and subsequently use visitors’ personal data in order to ensure the general operability of its website.
Ruling of the ECJ
The ECJ decided that a dynamic IP address does not only constitute personal data with respect to the internet service provider (which has the means to link the IP address to the individual behind the address in any case), but also with respect to the operator of a website, if this website operator has legal means to identify the visitor with the help of additional information from the visitor’s internet service provider. The ECJ confirmed this with respect to German law. Although the operator of a website does not have any direct claims against an internet service provider to provide the name of an individual behind an IP address, the court found it to be sufficient, if the website operator can obtain the information required to identify the visitor of the website from the internet provider via a competent authority which requests the information to prepare criminal proceedings, e.g. in the event of cyberattacks. As a consequence, the processing of IP addresses by website operators is subject to and has to comply with the applicable member state data protection requirements. Beyond this specific case, the ECJ has provided sufficient tools to determine whether information constitutes personal data, if the information cannot be directly linked to an individual, but only by using additional information which is held by a third party. According to the ECJ, this is not the case, if the identification of the data subject was
- prohibited by law or
- practically impossible on account of the fact that it requires a disproportionate effort in terms of time, cost and man-power, so that the risk of identification appears in reality to be insignificant.
The classification of dynamic IP addresses as personal data required the ECJ to have a closer look on the German data protection rules dealing with the processing of personal data in the online environment. Currently applicable law allows the processing of personal data without the data subject’s consent only in specific comprehensive cases. A general provision which provides for the possibility of a balancing of interest in a particular case is not included. According to the ECJ, this lack of a statutory permission is not complaint with Article 7 lit. f) of the Data Protection Directive. This finding also has a fundamental impact going beyond the case at hand as all member state data protection laws now have to be reviewed whether they allow for balancing of interests, at least in individual cases.
The decision of the ECJ forces all operators of websites, irrespective of whether they are public administration or private businesses, to review the collection, processing and use of IP addresses in connection with their websites. However, the ECJ has also strengthened IT security as it pointed out that member state law has to provide for the possibility to process personal data without consent for cybersecurity purposes.