EU digital single market geo-lock clampdown could spark BBC iPlayer abroad issues

An EU Commission strategy to break down online barriers between member states with a single digital market has said it will look into disbanding geo-blocking, threatening the BBC iPlayer’s UK-only restriction.

A 16-part pledge aiming to unify the EU’s digital markets to promote cross border e-commerce, more efficient parcel delivery, wider reaching copyright laws and more, could widely disrupt established digital businesses and their earning power.

Jean-Claude Juncker, EU Commission president, said: "Today, we lay the groundwork for Europe’s digital future. I want to see pan-continental telecoms networks, digital services that cross borders and a wave of innovative European start-ups.

“I want to see every consumer getting the best deals and every business accessing the widest market – wherever they are in Europe. Exactly a year ago, I promised to make a fully digital single market one of my top priorities.”

The EU pledge reads it seeks: “To end unjustified geo-blocking – a discriminatory practice used for commercial reasons, when online sellers either deny consumers access to a website based on their location, or re-route them to a local store with different prices."

Geo-blocking is widely practised by media firms including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and the BBC iPlayer to ensure that content is only broadcast in licensed territories. However, as a result of the announcement, the BBC may have to make the iPlayer available to UK citizens in the EU paying the license fee.

Adam Rendle, senior associate of media at law firm Taylor Wessing argued that a EU-wide digital market would “interfere with the business interests that have led to territorial licensing…it would be counter-productive to introduce a reform which would make it more difficult to finance creativity in the future”.

Rendle said: “The Commission wants to clamp down on the use of [territorial licensing and geoblocking] technology. It has not, however, specified how this would be done.

"The BBC's iPlayer is not available outside the UK but, following the Commission's logic, they would probably say that it should be available across the EU in the same way as it is available in the UK.

“But should this mean that UK licence fee payers should be subsidising access to BBC content for residents in the other 27 member states, who do not pay the licence fee? “

Rendle concluded that a digital single market would also benefit most US tech giants currently engaged in anti-trust suits with the EU as “because they would suddenly have a huge, pan-EU potential market for their services”.

The BBC has emhasised that the service will only be made available to UK nationals travelling in Europe, BBC News quoted a BBC spokesperson as saying: "We note the Commission's interest in making services more portable to UK users while temporarily travelling in Europe, and will begin work to look at the technical and legislative implications."

The move may well hasten calls for the BBC to move away from the licence fee instead towards a subscription-based model championed by global streaming services such as rivals Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Pirme and more.

The fee is going nowehere in the near future however after potential prime minister Ed Miliband stated in April he would renew the BBC license fee in its current form for 2016.

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