Is Regulation on the Horizon for OTT Platforms in India?

The Indian government’s latest announcement concerning digital and online media platforms brings them under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Could the government be signaling the start of a tighter regulatory regime for OTT platforms in India?

The Government of India is bumping up its regulation of digital platforms in the country. In a notification dated November 9, the government announced that it would be bringing digital and online media under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB).

The notification specifically points to “films and audio-visual programs made available by online content providers” and “news and current affairs content on online platforms”.

The announcement gives the MIB administrative oversight over OTT content providers and news outlets, Co-Founder of SaveTheInternet.in Raman Chima clarified in a tweet. It has not said anything about regulatory oversight yet, but Chima believes that it could, or that it shows government intent.

This means that online news outlets and OTT platforms in India, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar, could face increased scrutiny from the Indian government.

Previous efforts to self-regulate were dashed

OTT platforms have thus far enjoyed a period of lax oversight. While they came under legal frameworks, they were not directly surveilled by any government ministry.

Only two months ago, 15 OTT platforms in India signed a “Universal Self-Regulation Code” to avoid moves toward censorship.

“People had been complaining there is too much violence, and sex in web series or films made and streamed on OTT platforms. Therefore, platforms decided that to keep censorship at bay, we will have our own code,” Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta told The Hindustan Times.

Indian officials thought otherwise. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting rejected the code. It cited the code’s lack of independent third-party monitoring and a well-defined Code of Ethics, its absence of a classification for prohibited content, and a conflict of interest.

How this affects OTT releases and content consumption

Thus far, the government has not announced a plan of action to put in place any form of regulation or monitoring of OTT platforms in India. A report by The Hindu suggests that the Program Code, which oversees television content, may pose as a framework for drafting rules for online content.

The Program Code prescribes a list of don’ts for cable television networks, some of which are uncomfortably opaque. The very first restriction is on content that “offends against good taste or decency.” It does not elaborate on how it defines the good taste or decency of 1.3 billion Indian citizens.

Going forward, this move will also shed light on the Indian government’s perception of Internet content. Several countries have progressed with regulating internet content, including OTT content, each in unique ways.

While some see OTT content regulation to create a uniform playing field for offline and online content providers, some others use regulation to exercise stricter government control and censorship.

Censorship and government control are contentious issues

The climate surrounding entertainment and news content is sensitive in India. The country’s Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has been called out several times for its poor discretion.

For instance, the CBFC asked to blur out alcohol glasses and bottles in the Indian release of Ford v Ferrari.

Among its more controversial decisions was its initial stay on the release of feminist film Lipstick Under My Burkha. The movie, which won 10 international awards, was initially denied a release in India due to indecorous language and themes of sexuality.

Ironically though, “item numbers”, or song-dance sequences that objectify and sexualize women for the sole purpose of ‘spicing up’ the movie, almost always make it past the cuts. It is common for mainstream Bollywood movies to include at least one such item song.

OTT platforms in India have become popular for stepping away from the formulaic plot devices of mainstream Bollywood. Creators on these platforms have been unafraid to take on sensitive issues. Nor do they shy away from sex or violence.

Shows such as Sacred Games or Mirzapur have enjoyed widespread popularity in the country because of this. In a way, these platforms have developed their own formula, one which works with the Indian public. This formula may not stand the test of increased government regulation.

For news platforms, too, the announcement indicates mixed signals. On one front, it could mean a crackdown on the trend of fake news and misinformation rampant in social media within the country. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how vulnerable the country is to an infodemic.

At the same time, newspapers and television news have been having a rough ride – the former because of nosediving subscriptions, and the latter for its poor reputation when it comes to sensationalism and pandering to the government.

The government announcement, therefore, comes amid a complex media climate within the country. While it begs for further clarity in terms of actionable items, it has also put platforms, content producers, and consumers on their guard. And any subsequent moves will reveal how much control the government may be expecting to exercise over these Internet content platforms, or if that’s even possible at all.

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