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25th May 2019

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EU bans 'geo-blocking' - but not (yet) for audiovisual

  • Spotify offers music catalogues that may differ from EU country to EU country. Under new rules, consumers will have the right to know the differences (but not the right to buy access to another country's catalogue) (Photo: Heidi Sandstrom)

Negotiators from three EU institutions reached a political compromise on Monday evening (20 November) that will ban certain types of 'geo-blocking' within a year.

Discrimination based on a consumer's location, or geo-blocking, will no longer be allowed in the EU for online sales of three specific services: goods without physical delivery; electronically-supplied services; and services provided in a specific physical location.

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However, the new EU regulation agreed on Monday will not cover geo-blocking of videos.

The European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the EU – representing the national governments – reached their agreement 18 months after the publication of the legislative proposal.

In a press release, the Commission gave some examples in the three categories which will be banned by the end of next year.

Example one: "A Belgian customer wishes to buy a refrigerator and finds the best deal on a German website. The customer will be entitled to order the product and collect it at the trader's premises or organise delivery himself to his home."

Example two: "A Bulgarian consumer wishes to buy hosting services for her website from a Spanish company. She will now have access to the service, can register and buy this service without having to pay additional fees compared to a Spanish consumer."

Example three: "An Italian family can buy a trip directly to an amusement park in France without being redirected to an Italian website."

This should prevent consumers in any EU country being offered a different price or service based on their location.

'Video unavailable'

Many internet users will at one point have come across audiovisual content that is not accessible in their country.

It is also a well-known bugbear of European Commission vice-president for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, who repeatedly has said he "hates" geo-blocking.

But the regulation does make baby steps towards opening up copyrighted content like games, music, and ebooks.

The legislation will give EU consumers the right to know what a seller offers in other EU countries.

Many internet services, for example music streaming service Spotify, offer different catalogues in different countries.

A European Commission official, who briefed journalists on Tuesday (21 November) on condition of anonymity, confirmed an example given by this website: a consumer with a subscription to Spotify in Belgium will have the right to know what is being offered in Germany.

The new legislation does not give the consumer the right to buy access to the service, but the idea behind this new transparency rule is that it could give consumers leverage, or at least lets them make an informed choice.

"Obviously they are not going to negotiate individual terms and conditions with Spotify," said the Commission official, followed by a chuckle, probably because popular internet companies are able to dictate their terms on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

"But it gives them information which then allows them to decide whether they think they get a reasonable offer, yes or no."

The right-to-know clause does not cover video services like Netflix.

But the Commission official said that its inclusion opens up the possibility for the EU legislators to come back to the issue at a later stage.

She said it was agreed that the Commission should review the legislation within two years, to possibly propose including other services in the anti-geo-blocking regulation.

The official added that the Commission was "acutely aware" of what EU consumers want.

She said it hoped to use the experience with sales of services that are covered in the new regulation to convince member states of including audiovisual services.

Armed with more data, the Commission could then propose to ban geo-blocking for copyrighted content as well.

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