The job of any government regulator is to ensure a level playing field and not to stifle creativity by imposing restrictions
The raging debate concerning over-the-top (OTT) platforms revolves around a rigid binary question of whether there should be self-regulation or certification. This debate needs to become more nuanced to reflect broader realities of the new and growing industry which has so far remained outside the ambit of any regulation. There is a growing demand for regulation in view of the complaints over graphic violence and obscenity on the streaming platforms. While there is a strong case for standardisation of a sector that has witnessed exponential growth in recent times, the government-imposed certification is no answer. A pragmatic and balanced approach is needed to monitor the content. Ideally, it would be better to allow the sector 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 the growth and stifle creativity by imposing restrictions. It appears that the government is moving towards regulation of digital content providers after rejecting the self-regulation code drawn up by 15 major OTT players including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Hotstar. While there is a mechanism to redress grievances involving print and cable media, there is no such platform available for digital media. However, if the OTT platforms have to be regulated, self-regulation by the industry should be the preferred route. By issuing a blanket order in November last year to include the online media—news, entertainment and the OTT platforms—under the control of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the NDA government displayed its intent to regulate their content.
There are at least 40 OTT platforms and hundreds of news content websites in India with the market size of OTT platforms expected to touch Rs 4,000-crore by 2025. During the pandemic-induced lockdown, the streaming channels registered 60-80% spike in the subscriber base. Unlike other media and entertainment sectors, the OTT is a unique field, which shares the features of an intermediary without being an intermediary by itself. The streaming channels qualify to be intermediaries under 2 (1) of the IT Act, 2000, if they are dealing with the third party data. But, they also have their own content. The intermediaries are hardly held accountable for the content published on the platform, and are generally subject to the rules set by the platforms themselves. There is a need for framing guidelines and instituting a viable complaints redressal system, if the sector wants to keep the government out of its hair. The OTT players must agree for an independent body to look into complaints about their content. A viable self-governance model is the key to preserve artistic freedom.
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