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Geo-blocking set to be banned in Switzerland

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Geo-blocking is the practice of pushing online shoppers to a version of a website based on their geographic location. Many consumers would like to see the practice made illegal and Swiss laws look set to make it so, according to the NZZ am Sonntag, reported Le Matin.

Geo-blocking and filtering is particularly pernicious in a place like Switzerland where prices are generally much higher than the rest of Europe.

There are broadly two kinds of geography-based digital barriers thrown in front of online shoppers. The first automatically directs customers to a local site but then offers an option somewhere on the site to change the country. The other forces the customer on to a local site that cannot be navigated away from. The first is easy to circumvent. To get around the second, a virtual private network (VPN) and anonymiser service is required. However, not everyone subscribes to such services, which add another layer of cost.

The NZZ am Sonntag cites Nespresso as an example of geo-filtering. Typing Nespresso into the search bar when located in Switzerland sends the user to the Swiss website, where an order of 10 capsules can cost CHF 5.70. However, the website address can be overwritten by overtyping the “ch” in the address bar with “fr”. Then the same order costs CHF 4.00 (Euro 3.70), around 30% less.

The most geo-blocked product is probably digital content. Geo-blocking is usually justified based on local copyright laws. Netflix is an example of this. Overtyping the “ch” in the address bar gets a customer nowhere. All address-bar roads lead back to the Swiss site.

In 2015, the European Union (EU) announced a Digital Single Market strategy, which aimed to end unjustified geo-blocking between EU countries. Then in April 2018, new EU digital media portability rules took effect, which required paid digital media services to offer roaming within the EU. This meant that a subscriber to Netflix in one EU country must be able to access their home country’s version from any other EU country. But, Swiss consumers being outside the EU, were left out of the party.

However, this looks set to change between now and January 2021. A legal change will make geo-blocking in Switzerland illegal from next year.

The next problem may then be getting foreign sites to send products to Switzerland. Not to mention the costly dissuasive Swiss customs processing charges.

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