The information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry, in a gazette notification dated November 9, announced that digital content—including original films and web series on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms—will now come under its purview. For OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+Hotstar, etc. this move could come as a big blow as their content might now have to go through several layers of regulations—and possibly even censorship.

According to the amendment order signed by President Ram Nath Kovind, films and audio-visual programmes made available by online content providers would be brought under the purview of the I&B ministry. According to the order, government regulations would also begin to apply to online news media portals, as well as to news hosted on social media platforms, such as on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In India, all media, except online, is regulated. For example the Press Council of India regulates the print media, while the television news channels come under the News Broadcasters Association. Similarly, advertising and film content is regulated by the Advertising Standards Council of India and the Central Board of Film Certification, respectively.

However, no government body was given the jurisdiction to regulate digital content in the same fashion. This has been a bone of contention between the government and OTT media platforms for quite some time now. In 2019, for example, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar had argued that there needs to be "some kind of regulation" for OTT platforms, synonymous with print and electronic media regulators in the country.

This move comes after the Supreme Court sought the centre's response on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by an autonomous body on the issue of the regulation of OTT platforms last month. The PIL said that digital content on these platforms is available to the public at large without any filter or screening. Around the same time, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI)—that included streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, ALTBalaji, ZEE5, Arre, Discovery+, Eros Now, Flickstree, Hoichoi, Hungama, MX Player, Shemaroo, VOOT, Jio Cinema, SonyLIV, and Lionsgate Play—had come together to sign a code of self-regulation. It contained a framework for age classification, appropriate content description, access control, and a grievance redressal mechanism through either a consumer complaints department or an advisory panel. The I&B ministry, however, refused to support it. “The proposed self-regulatory mechanism lacks independent third-party monitoring, does not have a well-defined Code of Ethics, does not clearly enunciate prohibited content, and at the second and third-tier level there is an issue of conflict of interest,” it said.

While some believe that this might lead to censorship of digital content, some industry experts, however, feel that it could only be for regulatory purposes. A section of filmmakers and content creators, for example, have taken to social media to voice their disapproval. Filmmaker Hansal Mehta, tweeted, “First clampdown, then lockdown and now shutdown. One day there will be a takedown.” Others like Reema Kagti and Vikramaditya Motwane, too, showed displeasure on the announcement. Karan Anshuman, who is known for directing popular web series such as Inside Edge and Mirzapur for Amazon Prime Video, too took to Twitter to voice his displeasure, calling the government's move as “unacceptable”.

Some OTT platforms, such as MX Player, have tried to strike a cautious note, supporting the government's move, but also highlighting that creativity should not be stifled.

“We look forward to working with the ministry to implement our industry's self-regulation efforts. As responsible content creators, we want to ensure this act not only takes cognisance of the nature of content being released, but also ensures that we safeguard creativity in this rapidly growing sector,” says Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player.

Some industry experts, however, have expressed optimism.

“We believe the above news may not lead to censorship of content on digital; however, the ministry may be forming some framework for regulating the OTT space,” says Karan Taurani, vice president, Elara Capital, a financial solutions firm that is focussed on emerging markets.

Taurani reasons that this might also provide a level playing field for other forms of media as everything but digital fell under regulatory bodies. “This is a mild positive for broadcasters, as the TV segment in India is highly regulated (pricing, content, licence, advertising) vis-a-vis OTT, which had no regulation until now,” he points out.

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