End of geo-blocking?

Europe bans the practice, but digital media exempt

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What is geo-blocking?

By Diane Cooke

Shopping online is one of the favourite activities of internet users and many Europeans shop online every day. Whether it’s for electronics, appliances or furniture, 57% of EU citizens bought something online in 2017.

But online shopping knows no borders. For in 2017 one third of online shoppers bought from a retailer in another EU country. However, they often come up against barriers that prevent them from getting what they want.

A study by the European Commission, which analysed thousands of websites all over the EU, discovered that in only 37% of cases people were able to complete a purchase from another EU country . In other cases, online shoppers experienced some form of restriction, known as geo-blocking, which is a method that companies and websites use to make sure that only people in a specific geographic location are able to access a certain site or service. That website is able to tell where you are geographically by checking your device's IP address.

For example, when you are shopping from Belgium and find the coat you want on a French website. You fill your cart, double-check you have picked the right size and click “buy”. The message “You are being re-directed to the Belgian page of this website” appears on your screen and you find yourself on the Belgian page of the website, where your coat is not available.

This is called country redirect and it is one of the several barriers that prevents shoppers from picking the online shop they prefer.

Other forms of customer discrimination include:

The website not accepting a means of payment (for example credit cards) from a different EU country

Not being able to register on the website because of where someone lives of from where someone is connecting from

The BBC is a typical example of geo-blocking. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a public service run by the British government. It is funded by British taxpayers and is available to all UK residents.

BBC content was originally broadcast through radio and TV only, but, keeping in tune with the changing media landscape, it started to make content available online too through a service called BBC iPlayer. This service broadcasts all shows, sporting events, on-demand movies and more, but only for people with a right to watch the BBC.

When you try to access this service from outside the UK, you get a message that says you can’t view this content in your country. The same happens with sites like Netflix and Hulu, too. Not only third-party shows and movies, but even Netflix-made ones like House of Cards and Longmire are only viewable in certain locations.

This can be pretty annoying if you’re on holiday and you want to watch your show of choice; it gets worse when you realise that EU residents pay more for Netflix while being able to watch fewer shows.

However, in 2015 it was revealed that BBC's iPlayer service was being watched by more than 65million people outside the UK for FREE.

According to figures compiled by research company GlobalWebIndex, the corporation was missing out on MILLIONS of potential income as people across the globe tuned in to the catch-up service without paying a penny.

GlobalWebIndex's iPlayer research, which saw them question more than 47,000 people around the world, found that many people were using virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the service.

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Europe bans geo-blocking - but digital media exempt

The European Parliament voted 557 to 89 on Tuesday in favour of a regulation that bans geo-blocking for most types of online content. However some digital media including Netflix and Amazon are exempt.

The move is set to widen access to many online services, including shopping, travel bookings, hotel reservations and car rentals, within the European Union, where many companies continue to use geo-blocking to restrict their content nationally.

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