Virtual Stakeholder Consultation on Content Regulation of OTT Platforms

The Dialogue, a New Delhi based independent think-tank, held a virtual stakeholder consultation on content regulation of OTT platforms, on 2nd December. This consultation was conducted in light of the government’s recent move to bring both online content streaming platforms and digital news media under the ambit of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry (I&B Ministry). The session was moderated by Mr. Kazim Rizvi, Founding Director, The Dialogue and witnessed participation from variety of stakeholders across from the industry along with representatives of the media, legal and policy organisations.

The panel consisted of Ms. Anuradha Raman, a senior journalist from The Hindu, Mr. Dilip Cherian, member of the Board of Governors of the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) and a distinguished policy and political consultant, Mr. Aman Taneja, a Senior Associate at Ikigai Law, and Ms. Shefali Mehta, Research and Engagement Coordinator at The Dialogue. The primary objective of the consultation was to understand the views of various stakeholders when it comes to the regulation of this sector, and dive into the discourse surrounding optimal legislative practices in the sector.

The discussion kickstarted with a conversation around the nature of the current OTT landscape in India, present modes of regulation and the major existing players and competitors. It also shed light on how the government has regulated similar industries in the past, highlighting the way the I&B Ministry has regulated film and TV media. Mr. Taneja questioned the move stating that “There is a lot of talk about how Over-the-Top [platform services] and the same has been tackled by submissions of the MeitY itself, where they state that these platforms are regulated under the Information Technology Act and additionally under the Indian Penal Code, covering content that is obscene, defamatory, hate speech, etc. Thus, existing laws of the land already cover the need for legal tools to regulate OTT platforms.”

Adopting a similar vein of thought, Ms. Raman concurred by saying, “If the intention of the I&B Ministry is to create a level playing field for all the players, why would you talk about a separate mechanism when you already have certain standards in place for television?” She further put forth the thought of expanding the scope of the CBFC to certify content on OTT platforms rather than increasing the ambit of the I&B Ministry to allow them to control content.

Mr Cherian, having experienced both sides of the spectrum, formerly of the censorship board as well as being a governing member of the self-regulatory Advertising Standard Council of India highly recommended that self-regulation should be encouraged. “As a business analyst, (strict content regulation through intervention of state) this will result in the gradual destruction of the emerging award-winning talent. We need to make sure that this regulation does not choke the growth.” He further highlighted how the long-term effects of such a move could result in India suffering a major slowdown in business viability and overall influx foreign investment in the sector.

Panellists were of the view that in the current enabling ecosystem, OTT content has effectively been able to rapidly grow its reach and offer news and entertainment across the country. This is an especially relevant factor considering the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, the consumer has always been put first and the government notification has thrown up a lot of questions. The most fundamental among these has been whether state intervention is necessary, and this was a subject covered in-depth over the course of the session. While examining this subject, the major alternative to government regulation being put forward was a self-regulatory model, whose efficacy was in turn evaluated. Speaking on the topic, Ms. Shefali Mehta said “Considering that online content on such platforms is more pull content than push content with an overbearing element of the user exercising discretion and that state intervention already exists through the Constitution and established laws, a self-regulatory model would be a better fit. ” 

Discussing the dangers of over-regulation and its potential to be exacerbated in today’s time, Mr Cherian said “The level of hypersensitivity that we have allowed to creep up and give legitimacy in these areas, has led to a complaint against almost every single film/tv show. A complaint based system won’t be as easy to put into place today when you’ve built up an ecosystem of “find-me-a-cause-and-I’ll-give-you-a-protestor” – micro-mobbing in terms of micro issues will lead to complete paralysis. ” 

Finally, the discourse progressed towards the way forward for India, with panellists providing a variety of suggestions to contribute towards the discourse. The idea of improving standard practices for moderating content via self-regulation was raised, while a mixed model of regulation was another significant idea put forth. An overarching consensus of the discussion seemed to be that the main agenda of the government and relevant stakeholders moving forward should be to actively engage and work together to build a progressive and effective regulatory framework which does not curtail growth.

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