OTT REGULATIONS: BOON OR BANE?

Abhay Pratap Singh

OTT stands for “Over the Top” and refers to any digital media content that is delivered to devices such as mobile phones, computers etc., via the internet. OTT has completely revolutionised the cable TV concept to deliver content on-demand wherein a person can purchase and access the services on OTT platforms like Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., by using the internet with just a few clicks on their smart devices. It has managed to capture the global audience within a short span as it offers a wide variety of programs that ranges from entertainment and news to informative content on regular basis.

OTT Platforms in India

India likes to consider itself as one of the frontrunners in digitization, and introduction of OTT in India proves so, as it is the world’s fastest-growing OTT market and is all set to emerge as the world’s sixth-largest OTT market by 2024. As per the same report, the Indian OTT market is set to reach $5 billion in size by 2023 which is a good sign for the digital economy. Considering that digital media is largely unregulated and allows complete creative freedom to content creators, it has led to the creation of content that is highly consumed by Indians as never seen before content is readily available. However with all its ups comes some downs, as it caters to the diverse sensibilities of the Indian audience, which at times can be too fragile resulting in numerous controversies, with several shows, both Indian and foreign, being dragged into disputes on questions of obscenity, defamation and hurting of religious sentiments, etc. Consequently, there was a large outcry by concerned masses against showcasing different harsh truths of our society exaggeratedly, which could be termed as propaganda. In this background, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting(MIB) recently notified the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 (Rules). These guidelines will force some of the biggest entertainment houses to recalculate their business plans and the policy regarding their publication of movies and series to sustain themselves.

Major instances of controversies

The most recent legal controversy has been faced by the Amazon Prime video series ‘Tandav’ when an FIR was lodged against it stating that the video wherein Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub starred in the dress of Lord Shiva was mouthing lines about ‘Azaadi’ that hurts the religious sentiments of a part of the public.

Also, The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, a child rights body, issued a legal notice against Bombay Begums, a web series, featuring on Netflix, to stop the continuation of the show for its improper depiction of children.

Even the apex court of the country had to comment on the matter concerning the depiction of pornography on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime and how screening is required of such content. Moreover, the apparent pattern noticed in these platforms to capture the major Indian population was through creating content with nudity, abusive languages, extreme violence and fake narratives, etc in a way to control the mind of the users and make an exponential growth in the market.

So it is clear that these platforms have had their fair share of controversies and deservedly so in some cases, and there is perhaps a need for some kind of regulation to check their content.

Prescribed regulations

The three major prongs of the regulation are age-based content classification (the five categories being Universal, 7+, 13+, 16+ and Adult), parental locks for content marked 13+, which is based on a soft-touch self-regulatory architecture that calls for the online digital news disseminating agencies to self-categorise their content into one of the above five age-based broad categories and finally, the appointment of a Chief Compliance Officer as well as a three-tier grievance addressing mechanism structured as follows:

  • The first tier would be self-regulation by the OTT Platforms through a grievance officer, which must address user complaints within 15 days.
  • The second tier would be self-regulation by the Self-Regulating bodies of these platforms headed by a retired Supreme Court/ High Court judge /eminent personality in the relevant field.
  • At the third tier is an inter-department committee constituted by the MIB that will provide oversight and hear appeals for decisions taken at level two or if a complaint is referred to the inter-department committee by MIB and can take suo motu cognisance of any issue about an OTT release.

Implications

The rules are designed such that on paper it seeks to maintain a balanced approach between government control and self-regulation, however, the setting up of an inter-department committee gives the real power to the government as it could bypass the self-regulatory body of these platforms and take up complaints directly by the MIB. The Government has now put the onus on the publishers to make sure that the content they publish adheres to the public policy and the ethics laid down by the government and consequently companies such as Netflix and Prime who do not even have an office in India will now be required to mend their ways and re-evaluate their working strategy in India. This also implies that the market which was booming until now with unrestricted growth will now come across speed breakers that may limit its speed up to some extent.

There is also the possibility of these regulations being all bark and no bite as there is no strict punishment other than a reprimand and admonishment if the companies don’t follow the required guidelines as stated by the SC while discussing the new guidelines- “rules are in the nature of the guidelines with no effective regulation for either screening or taking appropriate action against those who violate these guidelines,”

Conclusion

OTT is a fast-paced and equally capable medium that is much more than just entertainment, depending on how it’s used it could instigate or teach the masses, hence regulatory guidelines should be taken as a progressive step and these regulations should be of evolutionary nature as the digital industry will continue to evolve. It is a necessary step to make sure what is being published conforms to what is good for the public as these platforms should grow a conscious responsibility to what they put out for public view to prevent any negative impact. And in a country like India with such a diverse population, it’s of paramount importance that platforms like these show some restraint in what they publish in order to continue their rapid growth benefitting themselves and the Indian economy in the process. Certainly, these regulations can’t be called a bane but for it to be a boon it has to be implemented meticulously by not drawing a hard distinguishing line but a flexible standard of evaluation.

This article is authored by Abhay Pratap Singh, a first-year law student at National Law University, Delhi. Presently working as contributing author at The Blue Letters.

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