Home/ Opinion / Views/  The government mustn’t act like India’s net nanny

On Sunday, the Centre wagged a finger at online entertainment platforms like Netflix, Disney-Hotstar, Amazon Prime and others. “These platforms were given freedom for creativity, not obscenity," said India’s information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur, “And when someone crosses a limit, then abusing or rudeness in the name of creativity cannot be accepted at all." These words of reproach were occasioned by a surge of user complaints, he added, warning that content guidelines might have to be altered accordingly if need be. His reference was to a code of conduct under new regulations imposed in 2021, a framework that included a three-tier system for the redressal of grievances. While most of these were resolved by self-regulation within the industry, too many had reached the top level, making the ministry take a grim view of what audiences were being exposed to. Although it is not unusual for an elected government to say what it thinks would vibe well with its electors, it must not intervene unduly in a market that is not short of choice. And especially not if it goes against freedom of expression, a right that’s vital to democracy.

First up is a problem of invalid representation. As people’s perceptions of decency vary, objections can always be raised by anyone to anything, but these cannot be allowed to form a veto. Gross crudity, such as porn, is evident for what it is—such as Sunday’s video clip that popped onto a railway platform screen in Patna. Else, indecency is in the eyes of beholders, by and large. If we let a national consensus act as a filter, little is likely to pass. Neither does every grouse deserve a response, nor is an uptick in gripes in itself a valid indicator of obscene fare on web platforms. These are services that users subscribe to and summon when they like. They are not free-to-air channels, so vestigial norms of that era do not apply; nor does the logic of going by common-denominator sensitivity, as applicable to a state broadcaster. By virtue of their business models, they must appeal to diverse sensibilities. Moreover, a platform’s subscribers must agree to its terms of usage. They are at liberty to quit the deal if they’re put off by what they see, or pick their viewing by the guidance tags—“crude language", “sex", etc—that these movies and serials display. As platforms seek enrolments for revenue growth, it is in their own interest to optimize what they offer and deploy age gates for family packages so that content aimed at adults doesn’t reach children. These age bars are not foolproof; they need to improve. But then, determined searchers can get what they want elsewhere on the web anyway, actual smut included. The apps under the ministry’s glare are only catering to their user bases, with swipe prompts shuffled by preference trails. Each to one’s own is their mantra. In general, so long as this space has sufficient rivalry and users do not get locked in (say, by a need to contact others via the same app), we can expect supply to adaptively satisfy demand. Since there has been no sign of market failure, the state should not get in the way of our right to contract a platform to entertain us as we see fit.

Lessons on market liberty made India release much of its economy from statist clutches long ago, but a yen for control still seems to haunt businesses with audiences and social influence. This cramps free speech, curtails our choices and falsely assumes the state knows what’s best for us. Instead, New Delhi should ease up and stop acting like the nation’s net nanny.

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Updated: 22 Mar 2023, 12:55 AM IST
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