EU plans to curb geo-blocking by firms online

Tired of not being able to download films, TV shows or music, or catch-up with the latest soap, or buy from the cheapest website because of where you live?

So is Andrus Ansip, the EU’s digital tsar, who has declared war on companies that build digital borders, known as geo-blocking, to increase profits.

The former prime minister of Estonia, one of the world’s most advanced web countries, was furious recently when he was blocked from watching his local basketball team on Estonian TV as he was not in the country.

“Deep in my heart, I would like to say I hate geo-blocking. I think this is old fashioned, this is not fair. We don’t have to use these kind of instruments in the 21st century,” he said.

He maintains that the internal-market — where digital products and services are available equally to all EU citizens — cannot exist with geo-blocking.

“We have to make a choice,” he said, adding that the digital single market would add €340bn to the EU’s GDP.

While he is putting together a plan to rid Europe of this geo-blocking, the powerful competition commissioner, Margareta Vestager, has fired the first shot in that war and launched an investigation into the practice.

The woman, who has been touted as an inspiration for the Danish TV series Borgen, is just as cross as Mr Ansip.

She told a conference in Berlin: “I cannot understand why I can watch my favourite Danish channels on my tablet in Copenhagen — a service I paid for — but I can’t when I am in Brussels.

“Or why I can buy a film on DVD back home and watch it abroad, but I cannot do the same online.

“Consumers must be allowed to look for the best deals online wherever they want.”

The same thing happens, it was claimed, when people want to buy goods online. They can find just what they are looking for at the right price but even if they are in the country where they are on sale, they are rerouted to the shop in their home country where the price might be higher.

The country where your credit card is registered, or the smartphone or laptop IP address that tells sites you are not local, as well as geo-tagging, all give you away.

European citizens are enthusiastic users of online services, said Ms Vestager. In 2014, around half of all EU consumers shopped online. Yet, only around 15% of them bought online from a seller based in another EU state.

“This indicates that significant cross-border barriers to e-commerce still exist within the EU. For example, technical barriers, such as geo-blocking, may prevent consumers from accessing certain websites on the basis of their residence or credit card details,” she said.

Geo-tagging can be very useful – it allows your phone to record where you took a photograph for instance —but it also allows sites to block you based on where you are.

Geo-blocking will not be banned outright as it can be useful. If, for instance, gambling sites are outlawed in one country, then they could be blocked.

Smaller countries like Ireland are at a greater disadvantage as the copyright of music or films is sometimes not extended to cover them.

MrAnsip is to produce a firm plan to deal with geo-blocking in May, but he faces a lot of opposition from huge internet, film, music, and TV companies — including some who have the support of several powerful EU governments.

However, winning the battle could be made easier if Ms Vestager finds many of the companies are manipulating the market to block competition.

The first findings should be ready by mid-2016.

Digital commissioner against blocking by media websites and online retailers within the EU


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