Business Technology

Monday 17 June 2019

Europe wants to stop geo-blocking on Netflix and RTE

House of Cards - one of the hugely successful shows on Netflix - getting rid of your digital TV package for Netflix could save you a lot of money
House of Cards - one of the hugely successful shows on Netflix - getting rid of your digital TV package for Netflix could save you a lot of money
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Watching Netflix or the RTE Player may soon be possible right across Europe with no ‘geo-restrictions’ or country-by-country blocking, if the European Commission gets its way.

The European Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said that ‘geo-restrictions’ -- where broadcasters restrict access to movies and shows according to individual countries -- go against the spirit of the single market. And she says that the European Commission may launch a formal competition inquiry that will include the issue of geo-blocking.

At present, Netflix cannot be accessed in over half of EU countries, even to those who pay a monthly subscription back home. And even in those countries that do offer the access, television shows available on Netflix at home are often not available on Netflix in the country the user finds himself in.

Netflix says that this is the case mostly because film and television rights-holders insist on splitting up different countries to try to maximise their own income. The same problem affects local broadcasters such as RTE, whose new international player cannot show the same hit TV shows to European online viewers as to Irish online viewers.

But the European Commissioner says that she’s sick of it.

“I, for one, cannot understand why I can watch my favourite Danish channels on my tablet in Copenhagen, a service I paid for, but I can’t when I am in Brussels,” said Ms Vestager.

“And it’s not only me who struggles with digital borders. About one European in five is interested in accessing content from other EU countries. Geo-blocking prevents consumers from accessing certain websites on the basis of their residence, or credit-card details. It is very difficult to explain this to the people and, at the same time, make the point that we are all residents of the EU and consumers in the same internal market.”

To this end, she says, the European Commission is poised to launch a wide-ranging competition inquiry into whether such geo-blocking should be allowed to continue in its present form.

“We are learning quite a bit from our current cases,” she said. “Last year, we opened a formal investigation involving major US film studios and large European broadcasters and their licensing contracts. We are examining the clauses in their contracts that prevent existing and new subscribers from accessing satellite and online pay-TV when they are outside the area covered by the license. And we are investigating the alleged geo-blocking of certain video games sold online for personal computers.”

But she won’t find film and TV content producers rolling over easily. As anachronistic as it may sound in an internet era, geo-blocking is one of the core tenets upon which rights-holders negotiate with broadcasters such as Sky and Netflix. Stripped of this negotiating ability, rights-holders would find a much smaller number of companies that could afford to bid for Europe-wide rights to movies and programmes at today’s valuations.

But there are already some cracks forming in the geo-blocking status quo. Two recent cases -- both involving football broadcast rights -- have cast doubt on the iron clad nature of geo-restriction contracts with Europe. A Copyright bill currently making its way through the European legislative system is also being contested by rights holders and those seeking to ease copyright restrictions across the EU.

“European consumers should be able to access goods, content, and other services no matter where they live and travel in Europe,” said Ms Vestager. “It is high time we removed these digital barriers, which keep Europe’s digital markets fragmented.”


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