You’ll soon be able to watch Netflix and Sky content abroad without geo restrictions

Last June, while Britain was dealing with its seemingly annual bout of election-fever, a European Union (EU) regulation was passed which could have a profound impact on the way we consume content.

It also impacts how copyright holders will have to consider about giving access to such content.

Hidden behind the offputtingly bureaucratic title of “cross-border portability of online content services in the internal market”, regulation 2017/1128 is a change that could revolutionise how we think about digital music, video and games.

What is cross-border portability of online content?

The EU includes a single market guaranteeing the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour within its borders. The digital world, despite having no physical borders, has aspects that are considerably less porous than the real world. The EU’s single digital market initiative looks to mend these anomalies for the 28 countries in the union (soon to be 27, of course), and the way digital content is treated is at the top of this list.

Right now, if you try to use Netflix in France, say, you’ll have access to a whole different set of series to what you can watch in the UK. With other services, you might find its blocked altogether – if you’ve been left frustrated trying to watch the football on Sky Go while abroad, say.

The legislation means that soon this will not be the case.

Wait, does that mean I’ll be able to subscribe to HBO Nordic in the UK?

Sadly not. The new law simply means that you’ll be able to access your “home” subscriptions when you’re in one of the other 27 EU nations. It doesn’t give you access to theirs everywhere else.

When will it come into force?

The law comes into force on 1 April 2018.

What will be affected?from_april_2018_your_digital_subscriptions_will_follow_you_all_over_europe_1

Anything with content accessible from the cloud. Think video on demand platforms (Netflix, Amazon Instant, Now TV), live TV (Sky Go) or game stores (PlayStation store, Steam, Origin).

The legislation is designed to be compatible mediums that currently are reasonably open, like books and music. As the EU’s FAQ on the subject says: “There are less significant problems or restrictions concerning the portability of subscriptions to online music services (like Spotify or Deezer) or e-books. But restrictions in the future cannot be excluded, that is why today’s rules are also important for such services.”

Any exceptions?

Yes, but only for free services. “All providers who offer paid online content services will have to follow the new rules,” the EU says.

Where does that leave taxpayer-funded services like BBC iPlayer? “Services provided without payment (such as the online services of public TV or radio broadcasters) will have the possibility to decide to also provide portability to their subscribers,” the EU says.

The UK government has just completed a consultation on how the law will be implemented in the UK but has yet to publish the results.

How will platform holders know where I live?

That’s likely why free content providers are opt-in. As the FAQ explains: “Service providers will be able to verify the country of residence on the basis of information such as payment details, payment of a licence fee for broadcasting services, the existence of a contract for internet or telephone connection, IP checks or the subscriber’s declaration about his or her address. The service provider will be able to apply up to two means of verification from the list included in the Regulation.”

But what about Brexit?from_april_2018_your_digital_subscriptions_will_follow_you_all_over_europe_3

That’s not entirely clear, but at least initially the UK will have to comply. Until Britain leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 – and probably later assuming some kind of transition period is agreed – the UK will have to comply with the laws. As the consultation document explains: “Until exit negotiations are concluded, the UK remains a full member of the European Union and all the rights and obligations of EU membership remain in force.”

After that, no such obligations exist, but having made the effort to put the infrastructure in place, it’s unlikely that things will revert to the way they are now. Still, with no legal obligation to keep things open, it’s plausible that companies will decide to make usage abroad a paid feature unless such behaviour is specifically legislated against by the government.

This is all up for grabs at the time of writing though, with the government saying in the consultation document that it is “interested in whether they have any views on the provision of content as per the Portability Regulation in the context of the UK’s exit from the EU.”

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