Crossing the Digital Divide

Can you imagine buying a fantastic new MP3 player whilst on holiday, perhaps you spotted a bargain in duty free or some custom electronics shop.  Then when  you come back from holiday the customs guy at the airport takes it off you because it wasn’t made in this country.   It would be incredible, outrageous – the sort of hard line, protectionist move that even the worse run state countries would probably flinch from.  yet this is effectively what happens in the digital market everyday.

A few years ago I decided to treat myself to a Netflix subscription, I was doing a lot of travelling which mostly involved staying in rather dull hotels on edges of industrial estates.  It was rather boring and the TV channels in these hotels were usually fairly limited for the English speaker.  Someone had shown me Netflix and I was blown away hundreds of TV shows with literally thousands of episodes perfect to while away a few evenings after work.

I was very pleased with my purchase until I started my travelling again and then the realisation set in.  I thought I’d bought myself a subscription which I could take anywhere with me in the world, after all it was internet based.  It turned out that I had actually bought a subscription service that MAY BE available depending on where I was located.   In fact over 50% of the times it wouldn’t work at all, and if it did work it was some other countries variant of Netflix filled with foreign language films and invariably missing my favorite shows!

Now it has changed somewhat since then, a couple of months later Netflix pushed forward with a massive expansion to hundreds of other countries.  I didn’t get the complete block but merely the different version of Netflix, however some of these were very short on content depending on which country you happened to be in.

It does illustrate the incredible difference between physical and digital goods.  We buy access to something on the internet and think it will be available anywhere we go but that’s simply not true.  Digital goods shouldn’t be affected by physical location but they are, often your service will only work in the country you bought it in.   As millions have discovered while trying to access the BBC, this is what happens if you try and access the BBC iPLayer in Ireland for instance – http://bbciplayerabroad.co.uk/does-bbc-iplayer-work-in-ireland/ .

The European Union is trying to change all this, they realise for digital markets to develop for everyone we need to break these artificial barriers.  A single market for the digital marketplace won’t be easy to achieve yet it is possible, legislation was being prepared to ensure that if you bought something online in one European country it will be accessible in all of them.  The BBC was looking at implementing a user login to allow UK license fee payers to access the BBC iPlayer in any country for instance, unfortunately that might be delayed due to Brexit.

John Williams

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