Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time on the Internet will be familiar with the practice of geo-blocking.
In one of its most visible forms Internet users are told by YouTube that the video they’re trying to access contains content from ‘company x’…”who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”
It’s a major irritant that most people simply cannot (and really shouldn’t have to) get their heads around. After all, the content is there to be enjoyed yet someone, somewhere, has chosen to flick the off-switch purely based on a consumer’s IP address. A ring-fenced Internet is not what most people want when they jump online.
Yet while people get angry at content providers who do everything in their power to lock movies and TV shows to a particular region, those same providers are also suffering at their own hands.
There’s little doubt that product ‘windowing’ is one of the causes of Internet piracy, with citizens of one country deemed more worthy than others when it comes to release dates. And one only has to look at the recent crackdown on people accessing Netflix with a VPN to see that more than ever, rightsholders are determined to enforce their territorial practices.
For the 508 million citizens of the EU, this kind of behavior seems particularly unacceptable. Alongside the free movement of people and the ease of doing cross-border trade, people are still ring-fenced in respect of the digital content they can buy or rent online. That kind of behavior is increasingly being viewed as unacceptable and a new push from the part EU-funded European Consumer Organization (BEUC) aims to do something about it.
“It happens unfortunately in great recurrence that consumers find that they cannot watch films or sport events online if they are on a foreign site, or they find that they are prevented from ordering a product from another Member State or must pay higher prices for a service abroad because their access has been blocked,” BEUC explains.
“This is because companies ‘geo-block’ their services and offers. That is to say they erect artificial barriers to prevent consumers in other European Union countries accessing their services.”
It makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing, but a new ‘hidden camera’ video published by BEUC highlights just how ridiculous that kind of discrimination would appear in the physical world. Carried out person to person, ‘geo-blocking’ really is quite offensive.
“We believe discriminatory territorial practices should stop and we ask the EU to do two things,” BEUC says.
“First, consumers should be allowed to access content such as sport events, music streams, movies and TV programs from any provider in the EU. This would curb piracy (accessing the content from unauthorized sources) and help all consumers to enjoy Europe’s cultural diversity. Secondly, the rules preventing discrimination on the basis a consumer’s place of residence when selling goods or services need to be sharpened.”
The push from BEUC and its 40 consumer organization members is timely. Last month initial findings published as a result of the EU Commission’s e-commerce antitrust inquiry revealed widespread content blocking across the European Union.
A significant 68% of digital content providers reported blocking consumers located in other EU countries, with almost three-quarters of suppliers in the fiction TV, films and sports sectors admitting that they engage in contractual geo-blocking.
Overall, BEUC’s calls will fall on sympathetic ears. Last year the European Commission adopted a Digital Single Market Strategy which among other things aims “to end unjustified geo-blocking,” which it described as “a discriminatory practice used for commercial reasons.”
Bread, pastry and coffee blocking isn’t expected to expand anytime soon but the EU probably has a battle on its hands to end the practice in the digital domain.