The government has moved to regulate content on video streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix besides online news portals, rejecting a code of self-regulation that 15 OTT platforms had signed in September.
The audiovisual content of over-the-top (OTT) apps, and news and currentaffairs content on online media have been brought under the ambit of the information and broadcasting ministry.
The decision has raised fears of “a licence raj on the Internet”.
It has also prompted calls for a “liberal approach” from the Centre, while some have expressed hope that fake news would now be weeded out.
In a gazette notification by the cabinet secretariat on Monday, the President amended the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, to bring about the change.
No reason was provided, and I&B minister Prakash Javadekar refused to answer questions at the briefing, saying he would speak on the subject on Thursday.
The government had revealed its intent earlier in the Supreme Court during hearings in the Sudarshan TV case, when it argued the court should first focus on digital media rather than television content.
The government has been particularly focused on online news portals, having been unable to control the digital media the way it has television and print.
Earlier this year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had written to Netflix complaining that some of its programmes had hurt Hindu sentiments. It had named five movies and web series: Leila, Ghoul, Chippa, Sacred Games and Krishna & His Leela.
In the Sudarshan TV case, the government had said: “It is the need of the hour that the court start first with ‘web-based digital media’ which includes ‘web magazines’ and ‘web-based news channels’ and ‘web-based newspapers’. They not only have a very wide reach but are completely uncontrolled.”
The print media is regulated by the Press Council of India with the stated objective of “preserving the freedom of the press” and it has representation from the media. Television has a self-regulatory mechanism in the News Broadcasters Standards Authority.
However, the government has rejected the self-regulation code for Online Curated Content Providers in India, which was signed by 15 video streaming platforms including Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Zee5, Viacom 18, Disney Hotstar, MX Player and Jio.
Unveiled by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) on September 4, the code sought to provide consumers with information and tools to help them decide what they wanted to see while allowing the content creators freedom to tell their stories.
“By aiming to do what is best for both consumers and creators as guiding principles, the code intends for India to be one of the most dynamic and fastest growing entertainment industries in the world,” the IAMAI had said.
The code provided for a framework for age classification and content descriptions for titles as well as access control tools, and a structured grievance redress and escalation mechanism for complaints of non-compliance with the guidelines.
It made it mandatory for each OTT platform to set up a consumer complaints department and/or an internal committee and an advisory panel with an independent external adviser.
Contacted by this newspaper for comments, an authorised representative of the IAMAI said: “We are not commenting on this issue.”
Netflix declined comment while Amazon and Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment, a Reuters report said.
Facebook and Twitter, whose news and current affairs content will come under the new regulatory regime, did not answer requests for comment, either, the report added.
Karan Bedi, CEO of MX Player, told The Telegraph: “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.”
While actor Ashwin Mushran tweeted “the government just went OTT on OTT”, Aneesh Dev, founder-director of Dollywood Play — a dubbed Hindi film OTT — sought a “liberal approach” to regulating content.
“The government should keep in mind the international standards in developed countries for allowing content, as there are millions of videos for which these platforms need to get scrutinised and seek necessary approvals. Hence there can be a more liberal approach of allowing content for an emerging medium like OTT.”
Filmmaker Vikram Malhotra said the industry would have to “wait and watch”.
“My only concern is that rules that currently govern access to content as well as its creation and distribution on other platforms cannot and should not be simply applied to the online medium,” said Malhotra, whose studio Abunduntia Entertainment produces films and shows, including some for Amazon Prime Video.