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Published on: March 9, 2021, 3:14 p.m.
Monitoring OTTs is easier said than done
  • Illustration: Panju Ganguli

By Business India Editorial

Much on the expected lines, the guidelines recently announced by the Ministry of Information Broadcasting for regulating the exponentially growing OTT (Over the Top) platforms did not go down well with everybody. For those opposed to BJP as the driving political force at the Centre and also its rightist ideology, the move marks yet another attempt by the outfit to control and channelise the lives of the Indian masses as per its own agenda. And, therefore, it is no better than a subtle step towards disguised censorship.

The feelers from government quarters, however, are that its move marks setting afoot a regime where content by OTT platforms is not catered in a ‘free of all strings’ style and that it is more in the favour of self-regulation.         

But even as the government was facing the heat from certain quarters for trying to set up boundaries for creative minds, an observation made by the Supreme Court recently has added a new twist to the tale. While hearing a case to stay the arrest orders of a senior executive of a leading OTT platform given by a high court earlier, the bench emphatically underlined that the guidelines lack teeth. “We want to see the regulations because we are of the view that there should be some screening of these types of films or shows... What they are showing? They are showing pornography in some films. There should be some regulations. Balance has to be maintained, the bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhusan observed. 

The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, meanwhile, had earlier (on 25 of February) unveiled the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which marks a serious change in the existing laws adopted in 2011. The new laws not only provision for a closer scrutiny of content dished out on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, it now also brings into its ambit the scope of keeping a close tab on OTTs’ presentations.

It has facilitated the creation of a three-layer grievance redressal system for any complaint, which includes creating a self-regulatory body comprising a retired SC/HC judge and six experts from the media, broadcasting, technology and entertainment business at level two and also setting up an inter-departmental team as well as domain experts at the last level which will have the power to warn, censure, reprimand or admonish the content makers if their offering is in violation of the code of ethics.

With OTTs becoming the rage across the planet and all set to change the dynamics of the entertainment business by becoming the most preferred platform for consumers in not-so-distant future, the government machinery is emphasising on the imperative to introduce new guidelines as India has already emerged as a leading global turf for the video on demand business.

And as mentioned above, it is maintaining that its approach is that of creating a regime that supports self-regulation rather than bringing in a stringent regime. Its detractors, however, feel otherwise and have cited it as yet another move to control freedom of expression.

  • One never knows what could be cited as offensive by a genuine person or party with vested interests, resulting in the OTT industry stakeholders being dragged to the court

There is no gainsaying that in a country of India’s size (in population and also cultural and religious diversity) and also sharp ideological polarisation playing out, as evident today, striking a balance as the Supreme Court has asked the government to do, would be easier said than done. One never knows what could be cited as offensive by a genuine person or party with vested interests, resulting in the OTT industry stakeholders being dragged to the court.

At the same time, the lack of a structured set of rules for the social media or OTT industry in the past as opposed to the movie or television industry, has resulted in some web series makers going to the extreme and almost in a ‘free of strings’ style using explicit violence, nudity or foul language not seen before in their presentations. And there are many who genuinely believe that this should be checked before it starts impacting the audience in India, especially young minds. 

It is certainly a complicated issue where there is inherent risk of losing the balance if those involved in monitoring OTT content in the future go overboard. India, which has long stood with its freedom of expression and creative freedom attributes, can’t afford the pendulum swinging to a stringent end. As some of the best laws adopted in some countries reflect, the discretion of what to watch and what to leave out should be ultimately left to the wisdom of the audience. Of course, after making the changes in the classification rules, much like other streams of entertainment platforms which have a longer history.

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