EU warns of ‘digital gap’ as IP numbers dry up

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Like car plates and telephone numbers, the Internet regularly needs to increase the number of numerical addresses available. With exponential growth in objects connected to the Web expected, policymakers are already warning of a looming ‘digital gap’, reports EURACTIV from an EU ministerial conference in Nice, France.

At issue is the ability of a growing number of users to access the Internet in a future where objects and individuals will remain permanently connected to the Web. 

But without an orderly transition, the digital gap could widen, heard ministers at a conference on the future of the Internet organised by the French EU Presidency in the Mediterranean resort of Nice. 

In a recent policy paper, the European Commission suggested that by 2010, at least 25% of websites in Europe should be updated to a new Internet protocol called IPv6, which draws on a wider pool of available Internet addresses. 

The objective is to get all European, and potentially global, webpages to update to a sustainable protocol as soon as possible, allowing the transition to an ‘Internet of Things’. 

“The current version, IPv4, already provides for more than four billion such addresses,” the Commission said in the paper. In comparison, IPv6 allows an almost infinite series of sequences, making it more able to cope with the exponential increase of addresses required to move on to an ‘Internet of Things’. 

In 2008, there were 1.2 billion laptops and around three billion people connected to the Internet across the world, according to figures provided by Swiss researchers. If objects join the pool, they estimate that trillions of new Internet address numbers will be needed. 

Even at the current pace of expansion, the supply of available numerical sequences will dry up between 2010 and 2011, according to the IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which is part of ICANN, the body which assigns names and Internet numbers worldwide.

The transition to the new IPv6 protocol is thus unavoidable and is also taking place in other parts of the world, including the United States. 

Privacy issues

But the transition is not without its problems. First, the routing machines used to allow computers to communicate with one another must be replaced. This would not be a revolution, but nevertheless involves new costs for operators. 

Secondly, and more importantly, the change to IPv6 could make IP addresses look much more like private data. Today, the same computer can have several IP addresses, one for each connection to the Internet. 

This is the main argument used by those campaigning against the definition of an IP address as personal data. If addresses change every time, they cannot be related to a physical person, their argument goes. 

So far, this line has been prevalent among EU regulators. Regardless of the lobbying of data protection authorities and a ruling of the European Court of Justice, IP addresses are still not clearly defined as personal information in EU legislation. If this were the case, companies using IP addresses for commercial purposes would be forced to ask the user for prior consent, which risks affecting current business models. 

However, with IPv6, the situation might change completely. The almost infinite number of addresses that the new calculation method would make available could in fact lead to the attribution of unique IP addresses for computers, objects and everything else connected to the Web. 

Speaking to EURACTIV at the Nice conference, European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) Peter Hustinx said: "In the new environment of the IPv6, traceability of computers and objects of individuals will increase. In many circumstances IP addresses are already personal data, both when they are fix and when they are dynamic for the simple reason that ISPs have enough information to relate data to an identifiable person. With IPv6 capacity for identification and profiling will increase. If there is collection of personal data we need to make sure that is for legitimate reasons and that safeguards apply." 

In its Communication on IPv6, the European Commission recognises the potential risks posed by the new protocol and committed itself to "monitor the privacy and security implications of widespread IPv6 deployment, in particular through consultation with stakeholders such as data protection authorities or law enforcement". 

Massimiliano Minisci of ICANN, the body which assigns names and Internet numbers worldwide, confirmed that "with an exponential increase of IP numbers available, there could be a migration to fix addresses". However, he underlined that ICANN's position was neutral regarding this issue. 

Every computer connected to the Internet is provided with an identification number, referred to as its IP address. As if in a virtual city, numerical addresses are used to localise machines connected to the World Wide Web. IP addresses are also key to identifying illegal users of the Net. 

ICANN, the body which assigns names and Internet numbers worldwide, gives packages of IP addresses to five continental distributors, which reallocate the blocks to local users, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Coditel in Belgium or Tiscali in the UK. ISPs subsequently distribute these addresses among their users. When a computer connects to the Web, it receives the IP address from a selected local ISP. 

But IP addresses are also increasingly used for commercial purposes, because they allow for profiles of specific Internet users to be drawn up. By combining the IP address and an Internet user's queries in a search engine with the location of the user, companies are able to identify a virtual consumer and tailor their advertising to his or her specific needs. 

Companies are particularly eager to target potential consumers in this way, while tailored ads are mushrooming on the Net. 

  • By 2010: The Commission wants to see at least 25% of European websites updated to the new IPv6 protocol. 
  • Between 2010 and 2011, the supply of IP addresses using the current protocol is expected to run out. 

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