Govt to regulate OTT, online news platforms
The Union government brought streaming video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, and news websites under the ambit of the Information & Broadcasting ministry for regulation, issuing a notification that will now allow the latter to draft rules that could have a far-reaching impact on popular channels of digital content.
In the case of streaming services, this creates a level playing field between linear TV and so-called over the top (OTT) services, and should prevent a rash of objectionable content that some smaller and newer companies in the space have been distributing, but it also raises the spectre of censorship.
In the case of digital news, this means companies in the space will be treated akin to print and electronic media companies.
To be sure, in both cases, much will depend on the rules drafted.
The change was made through the amendment of Allocation of Business Rules and announced through a gazette notification dated November 9 by the Cabinet secretariat. The amendment brought “film and audio visual programmes by online content providers” and “news and current affairs content on online platforms” under the ministry of information and broadcasting’s domain for regulation.
According to officials and experts, this is a precursor to the government approving future rules – either through legislation or endorsement of self-regulatory mechanisms. “There is no road map yet on what these regulations will be,” said an official in the ministry said, while asking not to be named.
This official, however, pointed to previous remarks by the minister Prakash Javadekar, who has advocated for rules for problems such as fake news.
At present, there are no laws or autonomous bodies that have a say on the sort of content on streaming services or news websites – complaints regarding these had largely been dealt by the communications and IT ministry with laws such as the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code being invoked.
Traditional media such as films, entertainment and news television channels and newspapers are covered under mechanisms such as government’s Central Board of Film Certification, the independent Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, the cable and television act, and Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act.
“It is unclear what sort of regulations might be announced because there are core distinctions between how production and distribution is carried out. For instance, in cinema you require a censor board certificate before release. In the case of television channels, you don’t need that – a channel just has to be licensed. There is a post-broadcast censorship with a three-strike rule under the cable and television act,” said Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF).
According to Gupta, one of the directions at least the regulation of online news media could take has been hinted in a pending legislation: the PRB amendment bill, 2019. “This will broadly bring them at par with print periodicals such as newspapers. Today’s move seems to be an early hint. There was previously an internal division on the matter of jurisdiction within the government but now clear authority has been provided to the information and broadcasting ministry,” he said.
Hints about such a move were also evident in the government’s submissions to the Supreme Court during a hearing in September to challenge the broadcast of a purportedly communal TV segment by Sudarshan TV. In an affidavit by a Union I&B ministry official, the government said if the court sought to regulate the media, then it should first do so for digital media, and not electronic media, since the former have a faster and wider reach. The ministry will now need legislative backing to exercise the authority it gained by Monday’s notification. “There will need to be laws which will come in the future. The only clear indication today is that the information ministry will be the nodal ministry for these laws, and exact regulations will need to be seen,” Gupta added.
The PRB amendment bill, if cleared, could require news websites to follow a similar process with registration of their periodicals as newspapers are presently required to with the Registrar of Newspapers of India. The bill also prohibits the appointment of a foreign national as an editor and replaces the provision of a jail term with a fine for publishers involved in printing of unlawful content.
Separately, the Union government in August, 2019 amended foreign direct investment (FDI) rules to set a 26% limit for digital news websites in India, the same as for newspapers.
On streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Hotstar, the government has previously pushed for a self-regulatory mechanism, the official quoted in the first instance said. These companies formulated a self regulation code that the information and broadcasting ministry rejected due to what it saw as conflict in interest in the advisory panel, news reports said in September.
The code proposed by the OTTs prohibited content, including that which deliberately and maliciously disrespected the national emblem or national flag, any visual or story line that promotes child pornography, any content that maliciously intends to outrage religious sentiments, content that deliberately and maliciously promotes or encourages terrorism, among other measures.
Spokespersons of Amazon Prime, Netflix and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) did not respond to requests for a comment on the latest gazette notification.
Some producers who have released titles on such OTT platforms said the move could put them at a disadvantage. ”This desperation for control of free speech and expression does not augur well. I am currently very disappointed,” filmmaker Hansal Mehta told PTI.
Former information and broadcasting secretary Uday Kumar Varma said the step was long overdue. “Some people thought because the content was coming on internet, it should become part of IT ministry. I suppose they have taken the decision based on content. News and entertainment content are both part of I&B’s mandate. So irrespective of platform or medium, for instance, even today, the news if it comes on radio, TV or DTH, it is part of I&B’s mandate. It is an extension of that and to that extent logical,” he said.
In the Sudarshan TV case, the ministry told the top court that there is a need to first appoint a committee of persons as amicus before laying down guidelines with respect to the regulation of hate speech in media.
(with PTI inputs)