If you search online for a GPS, you’ll find options on web-shops from across the internet. But if you try to buy one from a foreign country, you may very well hit a wall: the website might only accept a bank card from the same country or even send you back to a web shop in your country. That’s geo-blocking. It’s frustrating and it’s unnecessary.
It likely feels so counterintuitive to what the EU is about, what the Single Market should be about. Fortunately, these kinds of frustrations will soon be over. This week a new EU law banned geo-blocking for e-commerce.
This decision is perhaps one of the most important steps towards a true single market for consumers. Probably, as many have argued, a small one, but a significant one nevertheless.
What does it mean in practice?
When the regulation enters into force around Christmas this year, consumers will be able to shop freely across borders. This means that traders will have to serve foreign consumers ’like the locals’. No more, no less. From buying Scandinavian furniture on a Danish website to renting a car for your next holidays in Spain, you will not have to pay extra, be offered different conditions or have your credit card refused because you live in Vilnius or Vienna.
This will open many doors for consumers. Today’s obstacles are very often simply unjustified. For example, the reason given for many online retailers not selling to foreign consumers is that they are contractually obliged by their suppliers not sell to products outside their country.
So, is this it? Geo-blocking is over in Europe?
Unfortunately, it’s more of a case of the glass being half-full. The small print in this regulation allows suppliers to still geo-block online services involving content protected by copyright. Geo-blocking for some services is here to stay… at least for a while.
Due to intensive lobbying from the copyright industry and a protectionist attitude from many national governments, products such as e-books, video games and music were excluded from the regulation’s scope. The European Parliament and in particular its rapporteur MEP Roza Thun fought until the last minute to keep them in but lost.
How do we explain to European consumers that they will continue facing restrictions on the kind of products they get geo-blocked the most? The recent report of the Commission’s e-commerce sector inquiry showed that the vast majority of content providers (68%) restrict access to their online digital content services. This is something we simply cannot accept in a well-integrated EU.
In a separate initiative the Commission tried to make it easier to access films, tv series and sport events from broadcasters in another country. This proposal did not give consumers a right to access, but laid down the conditions for the service providers to expand their activities. And once again, the same content industry and many protectionist politicians oppose it.
At least, the legislator agreed that in two years’ time the Commission must report back if copyrighted services shouldn’t be included. This would be a game-changer for Europeans who would be able to access all content from other countries.
A slow but steady process
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor was the single market. The Commission itself in 1985 recognised this challenge in its White Paper Completing the Internal Market: “Europe stands at the crossroads. We either go ahead — with resolution and determination — or we drop back into mediocrity”.
The new law against geo-blocking is an example of determination to give consumers a place in the single market, but it is also an example of mediocrity: Europeans expect decision makers to develop the conditions for our social market economy to thrive. Allowing consumers to decide from which provider to purchase products and services across the EU is a crucial element for this success and we must not accept half-way measures.
Banning geo-blocking for shoes, tickets for theme parks or tablets is a good step, but it isn’t the top of the ladder. It should also cover TV programmes, films, eBooks and video games. It would boost, not destroy, European cultural diversity.
Twenty-five years after its establishment European consumers won their place in the single market. It must not last another quarter of a century before consumers stop facing access restrictions to content in the EU. After next year’s European Parliament elections policy makers should set a reminder to construct a single market who delivers to consumers as a whole and not as the sum of its national parts.
Agustín Reyna is a senior legal officer at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).
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