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By Ali Qassim
Nov. 6 — Removing geo-blocking rules in the European Union could end up limiting the variety of online sports content across the 27-member trade bloc, according to the legal chief of a digital sports content and media group.
Once sports broadcasters are “unable to block content” in different countries, they could decide “their only option is to sell one set of live rights” across the whole of Europe, putting an end to the current range of cultural and language-specific sports content, Andrew Ryan, Group Head of Legal - Commercial at Perform Sports Media, said Nov. 6.
“The impact on localized content and on small and medium size broadcasters” could be very negative, he said.
Banning the practise of geo-blocking is high on the agenda of the European Commission's goal to create a Digital Single Market — a regulatory initiative that the EU's executive arm launched earlier this year (20 ECLR 700, 5/13/15) in its push to remove barriers between member states and to bolster cross-border electronic commerce.
As the EC argued when it launched a consultation — a call for public comment — on lifting geo-blocking rules in September (20 ECLR 1366, 9/30/15), it wants to remove “unjustified commercial barriers” in cross-border e-commerce, including situations in which customers are charged different prices, or offered a different range of products, depending on where they are geographically located.
The EC is planning to make legislative proposals in the first half of 2016 to end unjustified geo-blocking as part of wider efforts to create a DSM.
Imposing uniform, pan-European content sports could become one of the consequences of a complete removal of geo-blocking rules, ending the current practice whereby “sports content is sold on a territory-by-territory basis,” Ryan said.
As an example of the perils of trying to create pan-regional content, Ryan cited France's Eurosport TV channel's early ambitions of providing the same “consistent” offering across all EU countries, a strategy it then abandoned when it went “the opposite way, offering territorial specific content such as winter sports in Norway and Sweden, different to what it airs in, say, the U.K. or Spain.”
Eurosport realized that “delivery of generic content is not effective and doesn't work. There are too many cultural and historical differences” across the EU, he said.
Last May, following the EC's announcement of its DSM plans, the Sports Rights Owners Coalition, which brings together over 50 sports bodies, also questioned the desirability of a total lift on geo-blocking rules.
It argued at a meeting in Paris, alongside the organizers of international tennis sports events, that sporting organizations must be free to market their rights according to their own strategies, specific market needs and local audience preferences.
Ryan raised the question of whether a move towards a unified, regional sports offering would mainly favor international media organizations that “are not likely to be European businesses.”
Over-the-top content providers like Perform for instance, would “not be able to compete with major international business” and stop providing the type of localized content it currently offers in Germany and Austria, for instance. “It would be too expensive,” he said.
Ryan spoke at a session on ‘The Digital World’ on the final day of the iTech Law 2015 European Law Conference held Nov. 5-6 in London.
Although the outcome of the geo-blocking debate will be clearer following the consultation feedback, Mark Owen, a partner with London-based attorneys firm Taylor Wessing, suggested that the key players behind the DSM initiative were divided as to how far to go on geo-blocking.
Speaking at the same session, Owen said that Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip was an advocate of removing all geographical restrictions, whereas the Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Günther H. Oettinger could favor a more sectoral-specific approach.
For instance, Oettinger has stated that the TV and film industries could be exempt from the lifting of geo-blocking rules, following pressure from the European film industry.
In September, the Strasbourg-based European Audiovisual Observatory published a report stating concerns that the “removal of territoriality” could mainly benefit major platforms and lead towards less cultural diversity.
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