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In the last three-four years, nearly 30 video streaming platforms have been launched in India. Photo: Bloomberg
In the last three-four years, nearly 30 video streaming platforms have been launched in India. Photo: Bloomberg

Will I&B ministry play moral police for OTT content?

  • The ministry should only categorize the audience based on the content they can watch

Earlier this month, a gazette notification brought digital audio-visual content, such as films and web shows, on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms under the ambit of the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B), sparking fears of censorship of video-on-demand (VoD) content.

The government had been pushing for self-regulation of the sector for two years, but sparring OTT firms were unable to agree to a common code. Eventually they signed one under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), creating a framework for age classification, appropriate content description and access control. However, this was rejected by the I&B ministry, which hinted at an independent complaints redressal mechanism, and enumeration of prohibited content.

In India, covid-19 coincided with rising digitization and access to affordable internet. “In the last eight months, OTT or digital media and entertainment platforms have all but replaced television," said Sajai Singh, partner, J Sagar Associates. I&B ministry decided to step in, considering that unlike films and TV, digital content is not subject to censor certification.

Amber Sinha, executive director at research think tank Centre for Internet and Society, said that the current move represents a significant widening of the regulatory ambit of I&B ministry. “However, there’s still scope for self-regulation though there seems to be some intent to redefine the self-regulation code," he said.

Traditionally, the ministry has focused on broadcasting services where the viewer has limited control over what he can watch. Though viewers can choose from an array of channels, content is still being “pushed" to them as opposed to OTT streaming services where you ‘pull’ content from a repository. “Given this important distinction, the regulatory approach for OTT streaming media may have to be distinct from offline broadcasting media," said Sinha.

Yet growing fears about censorship are natural. “Currently, there are archaic criminal law provisions on blasphemy and sedition that have been used to target content by OTT players. If these considerations find their way into the regulatory framework, it will inevitably lead to private censorship by platforms. Even if the laws are vague, it may lead to platforms reducing risk by censoring content," Sinha said.

A filmmaker had earlier pointed out that the government’s intent to regulate OTT should not be confused with restriction on nudity, language or violence but on content that counters its ideology or policy, killing any contrarian narrative.

Sinha said the changes giving I&B ministry jurisdiction have been brought through administrative rules. “This should only give the ministry administrative authority over OTT content providers, and not regulatory authority. Regulatory authority can only be vested by legislation. However, it remains to be seen whether this important legal distinction will be observed," he said.

Globally, norms around OTT can be categorized under three models. The first seeks to regulate streaming providers in much the same way as broadcasting services and is being discussed or implemented in countries such as Australia, Singapore, and Turkey. The second seeks to create clear censorship and government control over OTT players in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kenya.

“The third model that we see emerging in countries like the UK is a more cautious approach. This includes self-regulation and content rating system by OTT players or their association, while contemplating the modalities of a new regulatory framework for them distinct from the broadcasting laws," said Sinha.

However, to regulate the sector in India, Singh suggested that the current IAMAI Universal Self-Regulation Code for online curated content providers (OCCP), though rejected by the ministry, be read into the recommendations of the Shyam Benegal committee on certification of films and be adapted for digital media.

Among other things, this suggests that ministry’s role should be limited to only deciding who and what category of audience can watch a particular content, without acting as a moral compass. The age/maturity categorization and content descriptors should be a sort of statutory warning for audiences of what to expect in a particular film, and thereafter the viewing of the film should be considered a consensual act, and up to the viewers of that category.

The OCCP code and the Benegal committee recommendations may help the government come up with a code not only acceptable to all stakeholders but also “one that recognises the ground realities of today and stays away from playing the moral police (as aptly addressed by the Bombay High Court in the case of Udta Punjab)", Singh said.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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