The EU unveiled plans on Wednesday that would allow travellers to get online streaming services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer when abroad by 2017, something currently blocked by complex copyright rules.
Europeans spend about one billion nights in other EU countries every year but face a frustrating inability to watch films and sports or listen to music on an iPad or laptop when they travel outside their home country.
“People who legally buy content – films, books, football matches, TV series – must be able to carry it with them anywhere they go in Europe,” said Andrus Ansip, the European Commission’s Vice President for the digital single market.
“We want to ensure the portability of content across borders.”
As it stands, subscribers to the Netflix or Amazon streaming service in, for example, Britain, cannot use the service when they travel to another country. The services in different countries also currently have different content.
In another example, digital subscribers to Sky Sports in London are unable to access Premier League football matches when travelling abroad.
The commission, the executive body of the 28-country EU, said the ability of Europeans to enjoy subscriptions to these services while still in the bloc was “a new EU right for consumers”.
‘Complex technical issues’
The proposal now goes to the European parliament and EU member states for approval, which the commission hopes will come next year, with final implementation of the rules in 2017.
That is the same year that the EU is set to end mobile phone roaming charges.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, the largest public broadcaster in the world, welcomed the impact on its iPlayer service, which only people living in Britain are currently able to use.
“We are interested in being able to allow UK licence-fee payers to access BBC iPlayer while they are on holiday in the EU, and welcome the European Commission proposing regulation to help make this possible,” a BBC statement said.
“There are complex technical issues to resolve and aspects of the Commission’s proposal need clarification.”
EU officials said the BBC service would need to introduce a system that verifies the country of residence of users, which services like Netflix and Amazon already have.
Critics argued that the proposal lacked ambition and addressed only the narrow concerns of subscribers who could afford the big fees demanded by the streaming services.
“Overall, the copyright reform proposals are a far cry from commitment by Commission president (Jean-Claude) Juncker to ‘break down national silos’ in copyright and ignore many demands made by the EU Parliament,” said Julia Reda, a leading Greens MEP on the issue.
‘Just an appetiser’
But the commission said the so-called “portability” issue is only the first step towards a far more controversial plan by the EU to overhaul the EU’s complex copyright rules, part of a scheme to create a single digital market in Europe.
“The proposal… is just an appetiser, the main course will come in 2016,” said the EU’s Digital Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.
The European Union is the world’s biggest economy, but despite its 500 million potential consumers, digital services remain confined to national borders, with separate accounts and proof of residency required from one country to another.
In May the EU launched an anti-trust inquiry into the online shopping marketplace over the restrictions it places on people in one country being able to buy goods from another.
It is focused on electronics, clothes, shoes and digital content.
But media companies are extremely reluctant to break the status quo especially in France, where protecting French culture is an important government priority.
“In the digital economy, licensing distribution rights by territory remains fundamental to the financing, production and distribution of content not just in the EU, but worldwide,” said Benoit Ginisty of the International Federation of Film Producers Association, a lobby in Brussels.