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22nd Sep 2019

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EU commissioners at odds over geo-blocking

  • Ansip (l) and Oettinger - both responsible for digital affairs (Photo: European Commission)

Less than a week after EU digital commissioner Andrus Ansip announced he wants to end geo-blocking, his fellow commissioner Gunther Oettinger indicated he was in no rush to abolish the practice of restricting online content based on someone's location.

“We should not throw away the baby with the bath water”, Oettinger said in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published Monday (30 March).

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“I want to examine what an opening would mean for the film industry”, the German commissioner noted, adding that “we should protect our cultural diversity”.

The interview comes after Ansip said in a press conference Wednesday (25 March) he wants to end geo-blocking.

“I hate geo-blocking”, noted Ansip, who is one of the commission's vice-presidents, in charge of the portfolio digital single market.

Oettinger, whose portfolio is called digital economy & society, made light of Ansip's remark, by saying: “I hate my alarm clock at five o'clock in the morning.”

“I wouldn't read any contradictions in this”, commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva told this website Monday.

She said that “Ansip and Oettinger worked very closely” to prepare a debate with all commissioners last Wednesday, and that the entire commission that day “agreed that geo-blocking would be tackled”.

However, Andreeva noted that tackling geo-blocking was only agreed “on a general level”, and that the details need to be worked out now.

The details are at the crux of the matter. Geo-blocking is a technical tool that can be used for both 'good and evil'.

Sometimes companies use geo-blocking to abide by the law, for example when a gambling website uses it to make sure its services are unavailable in countries where online gambling is illegal.

And Ansip has also acknowledged that such practices are acceptable.

However, geo-blocking is also used to redirect online shoppers to a local website which offers the same products at higher prices, which can be illegal under EU law.

Another type of geo-blocking occurs when media companies prevent consumers from watching online content like films or tv series in a territory where the company has not acquired licenses. Here, the debate gets murkier.

The commission has agreed to eliminate “unjustified geo-blocking”.

But defining when geo-blocking is justified, and when it is not, will only begin now. The commission is due to publish its digital single market strategy on 6 May. Then it will hold a public consultation on geo-blocking.

Some, like Pirate MEP Julia Reda, oppose “all kinds of artificial barriers on the web and all kinds of website blocking”.

The German deputy argues for an introduction of the so-called 'country of origin principle' for online videos.

“That would mean that companies have to obtain a copyright licence only in the country from which they operate, which has long been the case for TV broadcasting,” Reda told this website in an e-mailed statement.

It is not the first time the two commissioners differ in tone on the same topic.

“We need strong net neutrality rules”, Ansip said Tuesday (24 March), referring to the principle that all data is treated equally by internet providers and intermediaries. “We need an open internet for consumers. No blocking or throttling”.

A few weeks earlier, Oettinger called net neutrality a “Taliban-like issue”.

“This is not the first time Oettinger has contradicted the Commission and undermined its stated consensus in his home country's media”, noted Reda, and referred to it as the "latest of his PR missteps".

Oettinger referred to net neutrality as a “Taliban-like issue”
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