MEPs have called on the European Commission to protect consumers’ privacy and personal data online by regulating the so-called “IP-tracking” systems of some commercial Internet sites, a move Brussels has so far abstained from but might be forced to reconsider given the mood in some member states.
IP tracking, or IP traceback systems allow websites to register the Internet Protocol (IP) address of computers that connect to it, and therefore identify the end user.
IP tracking is used by judicial authorities to trace back criminals in police investigations. It is also a critical tool for identifying sources of cyber attacks and instituting protection measures for the Internet.
Holidaymakers looking for cheap flights abroad over the weekend may have noticed that on some websites, the prices tend to go up at each visit.
One, perfectly legal, explanation is that there are fewer seats available. But that is not always the case. As French daily Le Monde’s consumers’ protection blog “SOS Conso” showed back in January, there was another much more controversial method of pumping up the prices artificially, called “IP-tracking”.
When a website using this practice offers you a certain price, it simultaneously records your search as well as the IP address from which the search was conducted. If you did not buy your plane ticket immediately, on your next visit, the website offers you a slightly more expensive price at each one of your searches. The more you search, the higher the amount, until you give in and buy. The price increases even though there are just as many seats available.
According to estimates, around 300 million users are potential victims of such practices across Europe.
MEPs from different political parties and countries have already raised the question with the EU's justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, since Le Monde’s revelations. The Commission answered that the issue was in the hands of national authorities but that “the clients should be informed about the processing”.
This week, a Belgian MEP, Marc Tarabella (Socialists & Democrats), put the issue back on the table. He alerted the Belgian media about what he saw as an illegal practice, though there was a legal loophole in most member states.
As well as tracking a user's searches on their own website, Tarabella was shocked by another industry practice.
“Moreover, these companies record which other websites the consumer visited in order to sketch his profile. If he visited luxurious websites under the same IP-address, it can influence the price offered”, Tarabella told EurActiv in an interview.
The MEP called for action from the Commission, which he said should come up with a legislative proposal which would allow for a more harmonised approach at the European level. But he said he would address Belgian authorities too, following the example of Françoise Castex, the MEP who asked for an investigation into the French national authority for internet and freedom (CNIL) this spring. The authorities have now launched the investigation.
Airlines under scrutiny
No specific companies were mentioned, but some suggest that low-cost airlines might be the most likely to use IP-tracking methods. Air France denied accusations in February. “In no way, do our company’s algorithms use IP-tracking,” it said in a statement.
“We don’t oppose commercial activity and targeting online, but we say that the consumer should be informed and asked for permission if his personal data are being collected for commercial purpose,” Tarabella said.
The European Commission has not received Tarabella’s parliamentary question yet, and was only able to repeat what it already said in the past – that it is a matter for the national authorities. But if member states start adapting their national legislation to this particular issue, as parliamentarians hope, it might be forced to reconsider the issue and streamline national laws into a European one.
In the meantime, consumers who want to avoid those pitfalls are being advised to search for tickets and trips from one computer, and then make the reservations from a different one.