Geoblocking is a discriminatory practice preventing customers (mainly on-line customers) from accessing and/or purchasing products or services from a website located in another member State, because of the nationality of the customer or his place of residence or establishment.
The EU Regulation no. 2018/302 of 28 February 2018 on addressing unjustified geoblocking and other forms of discrimination based on customers’ nationality, place of residence or place of establishment within the internal market will enter into force on 2 December 2018.
The current situation
The EU Commission carried out a “mystery shopping” survey on over 10 000 e-commerce websites in the EU. The geoblocking figures are quite high! 63% of the websites do not let shoppers to buy from another EU country (even 86% for electric household appliances and 79% for electronics and computer hardware).
The survey shows also that 92% of on-line retailers require customers to register on their website and to provide them with e-mail address, physical address and telephone number. The registration is denied most of the time because of a foreign delivery address for 27% of the websites. Almost half of the websites give no information about the place of delivery while shopping on the website although this information on delivery restrictions has to be provided in due time during the shopping process. At the end, according to this EC survey, only 37% of the websites truly allow e-shoppers to freely buy on-line from another EU country (without restriction as regards place of establishment, place of delivery and mean of payment).
On the other side, only 50% of European customers buy products from on-line shops based in another EU member State while the value and the volume of e-commerce, globally speaking increase thoroughly year after year, but only on a domestic scope not throughout Europe.
On 23 June 2017, the European Council asked for a real implementation of the Digital Single Market strategy in all its elements including cross border partial delivery, consumer protection and prohibition of undue geoblocking.
The lack of the current legal frameworks
The service directive (n°2006/123/CE) and article 101 of the TFUE address already the discrimination practices based on nationality or place or residence or establishment.
According to article 20 (2) of the service directive, the EU member States must ensure that professionals do not treat customers differently based on their place of residence or establishment or nationality (unless objective exception). On the other side, EU competition law on vertical restraints (article 101 TFUE and the block exemption regulation and its guidelines) considers restrictions on passive sales as hard core restrictions violating EU competition rules. However, both set of rules (service directive and competition law framework) appear not to be fully effective in practice.
With this respect, the recent report of the European commission about the competition enquiry in the e-commerce sector shows, among others, that geoblocking was used at a large scale within the European e-commerce sector.
The aim of the geoblocking regulation
The goal of the geoblocking regulation is to prevent professionals from implementing direct or indirect discrimination based on the nationality, the place of residence or the place of establishment of their customers when dealing with cross border e-commerce transactions.
The scope of the geoblocking regulations
The new Regulation will only apply to online sales between businesses and end-user consumers or businesses.
The new Regulation will apply to websites operated within the European Union or to websites operated outside the European Union but proposing goods or services to customers established throughout in the European Union.
What are the new rules of management of an e-commerce website?
As regards the access to the website
Under the Regulation, a business may neither block nor restrict, through the use of technological measures, access to their online interfaces for reasons related to nationality, place of residence or place of establishment of an internet user. However, businesses are authorized to redirect customers to a different website than the one they were trying to access provided the customer expressly agrees thereto and can still easily visit the website version they originally tried to access.
As regards the terms and conditions of sales of the website
The Regulation forbids businesses from applying different general conditions of access to goods or services according to a customer’s nationality or place of residence or place of establishment (as identified by their IP address in particular) in the following three cases:
- where the goods sold by the business are delivered in a different member state to which the business offers delivery (or where the goods are collected at a location jointly agreed upon by the business and the customer);
- where the business offers electronically supplied services such as cloud, data storage, hosting services etc. (but not services offering access to copyright-protected content such as streaming or online-gaming services);
- where the business supplies services received by the customer in a country in which the business also operates (such as car rental and hotel accommodation services or ticketing services for sporting or cultural events).
As regards the means of payment on the website
The Regulation forbids businesses from applying different conditions for payment transactions to accepted means of payment for reasons related to a customer’s nationality, place of residence or place of establishment, or to the location of the payment account or the place of establishment of the payment service provider (provided that authentication requirements are fulfilled and that payment transactions are made in a currency accepted by the business).
What are the impacts of this regulation on e-retailers?
Although formally excluded from the scope of the Regulation, relations between suppliers and distributors or wholesalers will still be impacted by it since provisions of agreements between businesses under which distributors undertake not to make passive sales (e.g., by blocking or restricting access to a website) for reasons related to a customer’s nationality, place of residence or place of establishment “shall be automatically void”.
The geoblocking regulation therefore impacts distributors twofold: first, directly in their relations with customers (end-user consumers or user-businesses), and second, indirectly in regard to their obligations under the exclusive distribution agreement.
The geoblocking regulation shall have to be coordinated with the existing competition law framework, especially the guidelines on vertical restraints which set up specific rules applying to on-line sales. On-line sales are likened to passive sales. The guidelines mention four examples of practices aiming to indirectly guarantee territorial protection which are prohibited when supplier and exclusive distributor agree:
- that the exclusive distributor shall prevent customers in another territory from visiting their website or shall automatically refer them to the supplier’s or other distributors’ websites,
- that the exclusive distributor shall terminate an online sale if the purchaser’s credit card data show that the purchaser is not from the exclusive distributor’s exclusive territory,
- to limit the share of sales made by the exclusive distributor through the internet (but the contract may provide for minimum offline targets in absolute terms and for online sales to remain coherent compared to offline sales).
- that the exclusive distributor shall pay a higher price for goods intended for sale on the internet than for goods intended for sale offline.
Manufacturers will have to decide whether they adopt a unique European gateway website or multiple local commercial offers, it being known that price differentiation is still possible per category of clients.
Indeed, the new Regulation does not oblige the e-retailers to harmonize their price policies, they must only allow EU consumers to access freely and easily to any version of their website. Likewise, this Regulation does not oblige e-retailers to ship products all over Europe, but just allow EU consumers to purchase goods from whichever website they want and to arrange the shipment themselves, if need be.
Finally on a more contractual level, it is not very clear yet how the new geoblocking rules could impact directly or indirectly the conflict of law rules applicable to consumer contracts, as per the Rome I regulation especially when the consumer will be allowed to handover the product purchased on a foreign website in the country of this website (which imply no specific delivery in the country where the consumer is established).
Therefore B2C general terms and conditions of websites would need to be reviewed and adapted on both marketing and legal sides.