Online video services in the crosshairs of the European Commission

As part of its wide-ranging digital single market strategy, the European Commission is considering introducing regulations which would bring about major changes for on-demand video providers like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video.

The Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip has firmly set his sights on the practice of geo-blocking, claiming it’s unfair that citizens across Europe can’t access the same digital services on equal terms. With the European Commission committed to ambitious legal steps in its digital single market strategy, geo-blocking is close to public enemy number one in the eyes of the EU’s executive branch.

Far too often, consumers find themselves redirected to a national website, or blocked. I know this from my own experience. You probably do as well….In the offline world, this would be called discrimination. In the online world, it happens every day.

Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market

The Commission seems to think that distributors, like these on-demand services, are deliberately signing contracts to distribute content selectively across the EU, then using this as a defence for geo-blocking, by claiming they only have the rights to distribute certain content in certain territories or languages (for example, when Netflix launched in Belgium, you could only watch the massively popular House of Cards if you set your language to English, as they’d sold the French-language rights to another channel).

The Commission, considering this an unacceptable situation for consumers, is actively considering banning arrangements like these, which could leave online services with the simple choice of licensing content for all of Europe, or none of it.

Operators like Hulu and Crave TV, or even Singtel have the advantage of watching the situation play out from the outside, even if they won’t be able to ignore the EU market and its 500 million consumers forever.

And when they do enter, they along with those already present, will likely have to deal with a new European-level law governing the sale of digital content, as the Commission looks to update existing rules on e-commerce and introduce new ones. This could even include forcing content providers to strip back their contract terms, presenting consumers with only the most important ones in an easy-to-read format, instead of the 100+ page agreements we are used to seeing.

As the definitive form of the digital single market plan evolves, all eyes will be on the European Commission ahead of the planned release of the strategy on May 6th.

Tiernan Kenny