Last week, the Centre issued a notification, bringing video streaming services or Over the Top (OTT) platforms and news websites under the jurisdiction of the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry. It will be drafting rules pertaining to these channels of digital content, to prevent exhibition of objectionable content. On the news front, online news platforms will be treated on par with counterparts in the print and electronic media industries. The said platforms were until now under the watch of the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY).
The move has raised eyebrows among industry stakeholders and citizens who wonder if these measures are a move towards a censorship-based regime. And with good reason, because the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which represents OTT platforms had earlier proposed a self-regulatory model to the I&B Ministry. The proposal for a Digital Curated Content Complaints Council apart from a self-regulatory mechanism, was rejected by the Ministry, which has now taken on the reigns of regulation.
While it might be soon to say ‘it was good while it lasted’, it is necessary to place the move in context to the prevailing landscape of digital content in India. In July 2018, cable operators were reeling from the impact of the TRAI asking broadcasters to clearly declare the MRPs and nature of channels. The All Local Cable Operators Association of India (ALCOAI) had written to TRAI, that they had suffered losses of Rs 100-125 cr in the past one year, owing to the manner in which many channels were offering streaming services via OTT platforms, without a downlinking permit or worrying about the tariff order. That year, the TRAI had evaluated a consultation process to enforce regulations on streaming platforms.
One of the behemoths of the OTT industry - Netflix - had just begun operations in India in January 2016, and in three years, it was reported its Indian arm’s revenues had soared by 700 per cent, thanks to the bouquet of desi offerings. The novelty of entertainment on the go was one incentive. What OTT platforms offered was a censorship free, and ad-free catalogue of quality global, local content. What was consumed, was how the creator intended it. What the arrival of OTT platforms also did was help many internet users and entertainment consumers to transition from freeloaders to actual paid users.
And this was happening when TV channels were levelled by intrusive and distracting censorship practices – from bleeping out of offensive language, to the trimming or blurring of scenes of an intimate nature to endless Public Service Announcements warning users of the dangers of tobacco and alcohol consumption. As per stakeholders, the move to monitor OTT platforms might sound the death knell for creators of edgy and fearless content, who run the risk of being involved in long drawn arguments with the regulators over freedom of expression and free speech, something even news portals now have to be worried about.
For the layman, the Centre’s move is similar to the manner in which Singapore enforces censorship of all platforms – physical and otherwise, through ‘out of bounds markers’. Enforced by the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the topics that fall within this definition includes political, racial, religious, and homosexual issues. The country’s government has justified it as necessary ‘to avoid upsetting the delicate balance of Singapore’s multi-racial society’.
We might have to wait for a while more to fully comprehend the breadth of the Centre’s decision. But a few questions remain. Amidst the bigger concerns that the nation is faced with at this moment in time, does the Centre really have the bandwidth to deploy resources for monitoring the tone of discourse, being carried out on OTT platforms or news portals? How afraid should a government be of criticism? And allowing people to make adult and informed choices? And where’s the Ombudsman who can offer corrective guidance when the administration itself has misstepped?