EU Commission goes after geo-blocking, 'absurd' digital barriers

Geo-blocking strikes the EU's digital chief as old fashioned

Letting EU citizens watch movies online anywhere and simplifying cross-border e-commerce are key European Commission efforts to unify the continent's digital market.

The Commission on Wednesday agreed how to proceed with its European Digital Single Market plan and identified priorities to be detailed in May.

"Consumers and companies in Europe are digitally grounded. They cannot choose or move freely. In the 21st century, this is absurd," said Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip during a news conference.

Limiting access to content to people in a particular country or region is a bad strategy, so the Commission wants to tear down geo-blocking barriers, he said.

However, there could be exceptions, particularly when geo-blocking is necessary to respect national laws, such as those that forbid online gambling in certain countries, Ansip said.

"But deep in my heart, I would like to say, I hate geo-blocking. I think this is old fashioned," he added.

Simplifying cross-border shopping rules is another Commission priority. Currently, only 7 percent of small and medium-size businesses sell across EU borders, but if rules were simpler, that figure would jump to more than 50 percent for e-commerce specifically, he said.

Consumer and contract rules should be harmonized while parcel deliveries should be made more affordable. Lack of transparency is a big obstacle here. Apparently, cross border delivery prices are not currently based on costs, Ansip said. However, he is not looking to set prices or introduce caps, so the market should solve these problems.

The Commission will also look to modernize copyright law to improve people's online access to arts, culture and entertainment content.

VAT rules should also be simplified, especially for small and medium-size businesses which often struggle dealing with foreign tax rules, the Commission said.

What's more, Ansip thinks telecoms are the backbone of the Digital Single Market and he lashed out against European ministers when they recently voted to keep some roaming charges around at least until mid-2018. He called that proposal "a joke", adding that roaming charges should be abolished as soon as possible.

The European country ministers, gathered in the Council of the EU, also proposed weakening the net neutrality rules already agreed on by the European Parliament and the Commission.

However, Ansip wants strict net neutrality rules that treat all traffic equally, allowing no blocking and no throttling.

Given that opinions on these key issues differ so much, it could take a while before the EU's three law making bodies - the Council, the Parliament and the Commission - reach a compromise. Talks about the telecom package could be concluded early in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Ansip plans to present more specifics on how to go ahead with the Digital Single Market package on May 6. "It will be an uphill struggle. We have to be ambitious, otherwise Europe will wait many more years to enjoy these basic digital freedoms," Ansip said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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