IP addresses, string of numbers that identify computers on the Internet, should generally be regarded as personal information, the head of the European Union's group of data privacy regulators said Monday. Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Scharr, leads the EU group preparing a report on how well the privacy policies of Internet search engines operated by Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others comply with EU privacy law. He told a European Parliament hearing on online data protection that when someone is identified by an IP, or Internet protocol, address "then it has to be regarded as personal data." His view differs from that of Google, which insists an IP address merely identifies the location of a computer, not who the individual user is - something strictly true but which does not recognize that many people regularly use the same computer terminal and IP address.
Scharr acknowledged that IP addresses for a computer may not always be personal or linked to an individual. For example, some computers in Internet cafes or offices are used by several people. But these exceptions have not stopped the emergence of a host of "whois" Internet sites that apply the general rule that typing in an IP address will generate a name for the person or company linked to it. Treating IP addresses as personal information would have implications for how search engines record data. Google led the pack by being the first last year to cut the time it stored search information to 18 months. It also reduced the time limit on the cookies that collect information on how people use the Internet from a default of 30 years to an automatic expiration in two years. But a privacy advocate at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, said it was "absurd" for Google to claim that stripping out the last two figures from the stored IP address made the address impossible to identify by making it one of 256 possible configurations.
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