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21st Jan 2019

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Brussels wants to end geo-blocking of online content

  • Going online in another EU country? It should feel like at home, the EU Commission says. (Photo: Theen Moy)

The European Commission has said it wants to abolish geo-blocking, the practice of limiting access to online services based on a user's location.

The EU’s internal market and geo-blocking “cannot coexist", the EU's commissioner for digital single market, Andrus Ansip, said Wednesday (25 March).

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He listed a set of goals to feature in the digital strategy he will publish in May.

These include: “Better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services; Shaping the environment for digital networks and services to flourish; and Creating a European Digital Economy and Society with long-term growth potential”.

“Consumers and companies in Europe are digitally grounded. They cannot choose or move freely. In the 21st century, this is absurd,“ said the former prime minister of Estonia, one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world.

The commission’s digital agenda drives comes as, despite years of highlighting the issue, many of the borders that don’t exist offline, continue online.

These means that some services bought online, like access to films and tv series, are only available to see in the country in which they were bought.

The technical restrictions that companies have put in place to prevent that content being watched from another geographical location, is called geo-blocking.

The practice is also used to prevent having to buy copyright or broadcast licenses for other countries, or to divert online shoppers to a local website with a different price.

“There are two logics. The logic of geo-blocking and the logic of internal market. We have to make our choice. Those two, they cannot coexist”, said Ansip.

But Ansip said the practice is acceptable “in some cases”.

“When for example in one country online gambling is prohibited, then geoblocking is absolutely acceptable.”

“If there are differences in national legislations, and [geo-blocking] is the only possibility to protect people in the country, then it's acceptable. But deep in my heart I would like to say: I hate geoblocking. I think this is old-fashioned, this is not fair. We don't have to use that kind of instruments in the 21st century.”

Now that the commission has identified the main problems, it will spend the next six weeks determining how it wants to solve them, and deciding what legislative measures it wants to propose.

However, judging by other digital reforms that the commission has set out, it can expect to face some fierce resistance. Vested interests are set to lobby MEPs and national governments, who have the final say on the plans.

“I'm under no illusions. It will be an uphill struggle”, said Ansip.

A day earlier, the commissioner expressed disappointment over attempts by national governments to delay abolishing roaming surcharges, the extra costs that companies charge when customers use their phone in another country.

On Wednesday, he referred to the prolonged debate on the issue.

“We already proposed in the year 2006 to abolish roaming surcharges. Then [digital commissioner 2010-2014] Neelie Kroes continued with this job. Now [fellow digital commissioner] Gunther Oettinger and me, we are dealing with those issues. The question is: who will be the next one?”

"I hope we will be able to abolish roaming surcharges very soon already. And I hope, and I'm pretty sure we will be more successful in abolishing geo-blocking".

Ansip said he will present his strategy for a digital single market on 6 May.

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EU commissioners at odds over geo-blocking

EU digital commissioner Andrus Ansip and his fellow commissioner Gunther Oettinger are at odds with one another over the need to abolish the practice of restricting online content based on someone's location.

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