The BJP government wants OTT streaming platforms and social media under the Information and Broadcasting ministry radar. The regime has hence introduced a new set of rules aiming to censor OTT content, triggering a global controversy. Here’s all you need to know, now, about the row. Grab your popcorn.

In India, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, popularly known as over-the-top (OTT) platforms, are coming under the regulatory watch of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MeitY). They were earlier under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The Narendra Modi-led BJP government this week triggered a global controversy with its latest announcement around regulating all online news, social media and OTT platforms by bringing them under the I&B ministry.

While the I&B ministry till date regulated print newspapers, television, films and theatres, online news and entertainment were overseen by MeitY which did not necessarily interfere with the content. This is set to change now. The details of the law are expected to be announced in the coming days. 

Present scenario

India is the second-largest internet market in the world. It is hence a lucrative market for streaming services and digital news portals. Netflix enjoys more than 25 million subscribers here. The American streaming giant recently said it had plans to invest up to Rs 3,000 crore in India. Amazon Prime, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, has about 5 million subscribers (although it’s not exclusively for Prime Video benefits). Bezos, in January, announced that the company decided to double down investment for the streaming service in India.

Unlike print and traditional media, the broader online media which comprise such streaming services have been free of regulations till date. The Press Council of India is the watchdog for the print media; the News Broadcasters Association does the same for TV. The Advertising Standards Council of India oversees advertising content while the Central Board of Film Certification regulates film content. 

OTT regulation, present tense

The government has been hinting from time to time the need to regulate online platforms. The I&B ministry officials have stressed several times the need to bring parity between the regulations on digital platforms and legacy media. I&B minister Prakash Javadekar, in 2019, stated that there needs to be some kind of regulation for OTT platforms similar to that of print and electronic media.

In a move perceived as an attempt to pre-empt state regulations, nine streaming services, in January 2019, announced a self-regulation code. More recently in September 2020, 15 digital platforms (including Zee5, Viacom 18, Disney Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, MX Player, Jio Cinema, Eros Now, Alt Balaji, Arre, HoiChoi, Hungama, Shemaroo, Discovery PLus and Flickstree) signed a universal ‘self-regulation’ code under the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

The code prohibited FIVE types of content:

Content that deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or national flag

Any visual or storyline that promotes child pornography

Any content that “maliciously” intends to outrage religious sentiments

Content that “deliberately and maliciously” promotes or encourages terrorism, and

Any content that has been banned for exhibition or distribution by law or court

The I&B ministry, however, rejected the code citing lack of independent third-party monitoring, absence of a well-defined code of ethics, and prohibited content not being clearly enunciated.

The latest development comes after the Supreme Court sought the centre’s response on a Public Interest Litigation on the regulation of OTT platforms in October. The PIL filed by an autonomous body said that digital content came without any filtering or screening.

Subsequently, on 9 November, the Centre notified the amendment to the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961. In the amendment Online/Digital Media was added in The Second Schedule of the Rules, under the heading ‘Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.’

Is there a problem?

Critics see the move as yet another attempt by the government to arm-twist the media into saying/showing only what the government likes. What has been of particular concern is the inclusion of online news portals and streaming platforms under the same category despite the two not being comparable entities. The government had recently passed a law limiting foreign investments into digital news platforms at 26 per cent.

“What irks the government is the use we have made of our freedom – to ask questions and pursue stories that the big media increasingly shies away from,” Sidharth Varadarajan, founding editor of online news portal The Wire was quoted as saying.

While Netflix and Amazon Prime remained tightlipped about the issue. MX Player, owned by the Times Group, seems to have taken a cautious approach. “We look forward to working with the ministry to implement our industry’s self-regulation efforts,” said Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player, in his statement.

Not all view it as encroachment of media freedom, though. With instances of social media and online platforms being used to spew vitriol, spread hate speech and publish obscene content, many feel it’s high time the platforms be regulated. As the details of the law are yet to be announced what is to be seen is if the guidelines would strike a balance between freedom of expression of the content creator and rights of the consumer to get authentic quality content. 

OTT control, globally

While OTT platforms and digital media are in nascent stages in most countries, the sudden spike in their popularity and unregulated flow of content has prompted several countries to think in the direction of regulation.

Singapore: The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore issued a code of practices for OTT platforms in March 2018 which classifies content based on the age of the audience. Programs have to comply with the prevailing laws of Singapore, should not undermine national or public interest and national or public security, and should not undermine racial or religious harmony among others. It also mandates the service providers to ensure a balance between the viewpoints expressed in news, current affairs and educational programs and make reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy of facts.

Australia: Australia too has had its own classification of content in place for online and offline content and restricts access to certain classifications. However, recently Netflix obtained approval for a tool it developed to self-classify its content with 94% accuracy.

The UK: There are no specific regulations covering online streaming platforms in the UK, however, the British Board of Film Certification has announced a partnership with Netflix which allows the OTT platform to set its own ratings for film and television programs. The government however has released a white paper on the threat posed by unregulated online content. The paper also proposed a new regulator and a regulatory framework to ensure the online safety of British citizens.

Turkey: The laws in Turkey brings the OTT platforms under a licensing regime, similar to radio and electronic media. License holders are required to encrypt the audio and visual feeds and provide their access to The Radio and Television Supreme Council of Turkey for remote monitoring.

Indonesia: Netflix has had somewhat a bumpy ride in Indonesia. Telkom, Indonesia’s biggest telecom operator, blocked the streaming service in 2016 for violating censorship laws. The following year, Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology gave the platform a month to comply with local regulations. Later Netflix entered into a partnership with Telkom which subsequently unblocked the OTT giant.

Now, with India — one of the largest democracies in the world aiming to become a digital superpower in the next decade — seems to be tightening the regulatory noose around online media and streaming, the move can have serious ramifications over how similar rules are enacted across the globe. The move can impact foreign direct investments flowing into the emerging country and any clampdown on content can disincentivise creative entrepreneurs.

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