The government will regulate OTT and online news platforms
The Union government brought video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar, and news websites under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for regulation, issuing a notification that will now allow the latter to draft rules that could potentially have a great reach. impact on popular digital content channels.
In the case of streaming services, this creates a level playing field between linear television and so-called over the top (OTT) services, and should prevent an eruption of objectionable content that some smaller, newer companies in the space have. been distributing, but it also raises the specter of censorship.
In the case of digital news, this means that companies in the space will be treated similarly to print and electronic media companies.
To be sure, in both cases, much will depend on the written rules.
The change was made by modifying the Business Assignment Rules and was announced through a notice in the bulletin dated November 9 by the Cabinet secretary. The amendment included “film and audiovisual programs from online content providers” and “news and current affairs content on online platforms” under the regulatory domain of the ministry of information and broadcasting.
According to officials and experts, this is a precursor for the government to approve future rules, either through legislation or the support of self-regulatory mechanisms. “There is still no roadmap on what these regulations will be,” said a ministry official, asking not to be named.
This official, however, pointed to earlier comments from Minister Prakash Javadekar, who has advocated for rules for problems like fake news.
At present, there are no laws or autonomous bodies that have a say over the type of content on streaming services or news websites; complaints in this regard had largely been dealt with by the communications and IT ministry with laws such as the Information Technology Act and India. The Penal Code is invoked.
Traditional media such as movies, television channels, and entertainment and news newspapers are covered by mechanisms such as the government’s Central Film Certification Board, the independent Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, the cable television law and the Press and Book Registry (PRB).
“It is not clear what kind of regulations could be announced because there are fundamental distinctions between how production and distribution takes place. For example, in the cinema a certificate from the censorship board is required before release. In the case of TV channels, it is not necessary: a channel only needs to have one license. There is post-broadcast censorship with a three-strike rule under the cable and television law, “said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF).
According to Gupta, one of the directions that regulation of online media could take at least has been hinted at in pending legislation: the PRB amendment bill, 2019. “This will put them on par with print periodicals. like newspapers. Today’s move seems to be an early sign. Previously there was an internal division on jurisdiction within the government, but now clear authority has been given to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, ”he said.
Indications of 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 supposedly communal television segment on Sudarshan TV. In an affidavit by a Union I&B ministry official, the government said that if the court sought to regulate media, it should first do so for digital media, and not for electronic media, as the former have a faster reach and large. The ministry will now need legislative backing to exercise the authority it obtained with Monday’s notification. “It will be necessary that there are laws that will come in the future. The only clear indication today is that the Ministry of Information will be the nodal ministry of these laws, and it will be necessary to see the exact regulations, ”Gupta added.
The PRB amendment bill, if passed, could require news websites to follow a similar process with registering their periodicals, as newspapers are currently required to do with the Indian Newspaper Register. The bill also prohibits the appointment of a foreign national as a publisher and replaces the provision of a jail term with a fine for publishers involved in printing illegal content.
Separately, the Union government in August 2019 amended the foreign direct investment (FDI) rules to set a 26% cap for digital news websites in India, as well as for newspapers.
In streaming services like 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-regulatory code that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting rejected due to what it saw as a conflict of interest on the advisory panel, news reports said in September.
The code proposed by the OTTs prohibits content, including content that deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or national flag, any line of sight or storyline that promotes child pornography, any content that is maliciously intended to offend religious sentiments, content that deliberately promotes or promotes and maliciously encourages terrorism, among other measures.
Spokespersons for Amazon Prime, Netflix and the Indian Mobile and Internet Association (IAMAI) did not respond to requests for comment on the latest bulletin 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 freedom of expression and expression does not bode well. I am currently very disappointed, ”filmmaker Hansal Mehta told PTI.
The former secretary of information and broadcasting, Uday Kumar Varma, said the step was delayed. “Some people thought that because the content was coming to the Internet, it should become part of the IT ministry. I guess they have made the decision based on the content. News and entertainment content is part of the mandate of I&B. So regardless of platform or medium, for example, even today, news, whether it comes via radio, television or DTH, is part of the I&B mandate. It’s an extension of that and to that extent logical, ”he said.
In the case of Sudarshan TV, the ministry told the high court that it is necessary to first appoint a committee of people as amicus before establishing guidelines regarding the regulation of hate speech in the media.
(with PTI inputs)