The Centre’s move to bring all digital platforms under the purview of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has fuelled fears of potential censorship and regulation. By issuing the blanket order to include the online media — news, entertainment and over-the-top (OTT) platforms — under the control of the Central ministry, the NDA government has displayed an intent to regulate their content. However, there is no clarity on how to go about it. Online content providers, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar, and news platforms come under the legal framework of the Information Technology Act, 2000, but, unlike print and broadcast media, they were not directly under any Ministry so far. Any attempt to push for certification on OTT platforms is likely to be met with opposition. So far, for online content providers of films and other audio-visual content, the government has been pushing for an implementable self-regulatory mechanism. With the growth of the digital media and a significant shift of viewership from traditional media platforms to digital media, there is certainly a need for having an appropriate oversight framework for online news, on a par with traditional media platforms. At present, the Press Council of India and the Central Board of Film Certification, both statutory bodies, monitor the print media and films respectively, while the News Broadcasters Association represents news channels and the Advertising Standards Council of India regulates advertising. However, there is no law or regulatory body that governs online content or OTT platforms.
There is a strong argument in favour of content regulation in view of the growing penetration of mobile phones. India has over 560 million internet users while there were 17 crore OTT platform users by the end of 2019. The size of the OTT industry is expected to touch Rs 4,000-crore by 2025. More than half-a-dozen cases have been filed in various courts over the last one year over “unregulated content” on the OTT platforms. The government had recently expressed displeasure at a model of self-regulation suggested by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, and a proposed Digital Curated Content Complaints Council. They lacked independent third-party monitoring and did not have a well-defined code of ethics. The latest move by the government could mean that the OTT platforms will have to apply for certification and approval of content they wish to stream. This in itself could give rise to many conflicts. While acknowledging the need for overseeing the content, it would be better to allow the media to regulate itself and follow a self-declared code of ethics. In a technology-driven industry, the job of any government regulator is to ensure a level playing field and not to impede growth by imposing restrictions.
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