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EU agrees to ban geo-blocking restrictions on e-commerce

The European Council has agreed on draft legislation to reduce e-commerce barriers by curbing geo-blocking, a common online practice limiting access to digital shops and services based on location.

Tickets for Disneyland Paris booked online from Germany can easily be more expensive than the very same tickets ordered from, say, a computer in an Eastern European EU member state.

Online travel portals often show different prices and accommodations on their websites - depending on what country the potential customer is surfing from. Some broadcasters limit access to their services in specific countries to comply with licensing rules.

It's a common practice called geo-blocking: restrictions set in place by companies and online sellers on the basis of consumers' nationality or place of residence. The latter is determined through internet users' IP addresses - unique numbers assigned to online devices. It's used to identify the device and its physical location.

Blocked from the best offers

New EU draft regulations agreed on Monday are designed to give citizens access to a wider choice of goods and services because "people expect to be able to shop online in another EU country just like the locals do," the European Council argued.

Allowing the "cross-border flows of goods and knowledge to work fluently" is an important part of the EU's digital single market strategy, European Council press spokesman Victor Flavian told DW on Monday.

The EU member states have agreed that the draft rules are a good starting point for negotiations, Flavian said, adding that various details are bound to be reviewed, compromises made, and talks held with companies and consumer associations over the coming months.

A survey by the European Commission found that last year only 37 percent of websites "allowed cross-border customers to reach the final step before completing the purchase by entering payment details." The market is potentially huge: In 2014, three out of four Europeans used the internet on a regular basis.

Breaking down barriers

Under the draft rules still to be finalized with the European Parliament, sellers would not be allowed to "apply different payment conditions for customers for reasons of nationality, place of residence or place of establishment," nor would they be "allowed to block or limit customers' access to their online interface for reasons of nationality or place of residence." 

Car rental agencies would have to bundle their offers on an international website ending in ".com," meaning the same vehicles and prices - no matter the customers' location. Special prices would only be allowed on national websites.

The EU expects to see new rules on geo-blocking in place next year.

If unjustified geo-blocking were limited at the same time that mobile roaming charges are to be scrapped in the EU in June 2017, said European Council press spokesman Flavian, that would be perfect timing.

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