A few short days ago the digital games distribution service Origin, owned by EA, ceased service in Myanmar. The entire country is now no longer being supported by the platform, with representatives from EA citing US – Myanmar trade restrictions as the reason. Not only will users be unable to log into Origin, and thus unable to play any of the games they paid for, it forces us to look again at the rights of consumers in the era of digital distribution. The events mirror those of two weeks ago, where customers in both Ukraine and Iran were unable to access their Origin accounts. While consumers in Ukraine had their issues resolved, those in Iran are still awaiting a resolution.
EA Origin Bans Players in Myanmar
Residents in Myanmar paid for their games, same as any of us, but due to the terms and conditions, EA may deny access to paid for products without issuing a refund. The same is true of the vast majority of digital distribution platforms, including Steam. The reasons cited by EA are certainly suspect, while the trade restrictions against the State of Myanmar were in effect for nearly two decades, President Obama stated in September past that the current sanctions against the East Asian nation would be lifted soon, and indeed they were on October 7th. The Military Junta in Myanmar has relinquished much control of the country to the democratically elected government. So if there are supposedly no sanctions on the country under law, why is EA claiming that US laws are preventing them from operating in Myanmar?
Current theories revolve around the classification of certain kinds of encryption techniques being counted as munitions. In addition some firms choose to make use of the exceptions inherent to US sanction law that allow them to do business in countries like Iran. EA may be choosing to not make use of these exceptions, but if that were the case it should only apply to countries that are currently sanctioned.
Consumer Protection for Digital Goods
EA’s provided reasons for the countrywide block are ridiculous, as far as I know there are no US laws prohibiting them from operating in the country in question. More to the point, no other digital distribution platform has ceased operations in Myanmar. I feel that the move from EA should prompt a wider discussion on ownership, and what we as consumers have the right to. A 2013 lawsuit in Germany comes to mind, brought against Valve, owner of the Steam platform. Seeking parity between physical ownership of a product and digital ownership of a product, consumer rights group Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband, vzbv, brought a case to the German court system to gain the right to resell rightfully purchased products, in this case Steam games. They lost.
It is becoming distressingly more common for consumers to not truly own what they pay for. The right to do what one wishes with a purchased product exists for the vast majority of physical goods, buy a car, mod it, break it, fix it, sell it, do whatever you wish with it. But the same kind of consumer protections do not exist for the owners of digital media. The situation in Myanmar is indicative of a growing trend, and while it might now seem like it is happening oh so far away, it is as close as a push of a button to happening to you.
EA have since confirmed that service in Myanmar will be reinstated.