If we dial the clock back to March 2020, we all can remember the uncertainty towards the pandemic and lockdown. Although many hubs of social interaction like restaurants, movie theaters, and clubs were shutting down, we weren’t extremely concerned about how we are going to spend our time at home. After making a single cup of the tedious Dalgona coffee, we all started binging on movies and TV shows via OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney Plus Hotstar. Imagine what the lockdown would have been like without hands-on access to unlimited entertainment. According to The Atlantic, during the Spanish Flu, which lasted from 1918 to 1920, people had to take up hobbies like sewing clothes and reading newspapers for new cooking recipes to escape boredom.
The presence of OTT platforms has made the lockdown experience much more comfortable. However, these streaming services are going through some major changes right now. As reported by Hindustan Times, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry is working with Ministry of Information and Technology as well as the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to regulate OTT platforms.
Why Disney Plus Hotstar, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video Will Be Regulated
The print media is regulated by the Press Council of India and TV content is regulated by the Cable Networks Regulation Act (2005). Unlike these, streaming services aren’t regulated at all.
There are currently at least 40 OTT platforms in India, including global ones like Netflix, Disney Plus Hotstar, and Amazon Prime Video. Certain shows and movies from these platforms like Sacred Games, A Suitable Boy, Taandav, Paatal Lok, and Mirzapur have run into legal issues as they have allegedly hurt religious sentiments of certain groups.
— Live Law (@LiveLawIndia) February 9, 2021
As reported by Business Insider, High Courts are unable to entertain pleas to take any action against these shows as they cannot frame such regulations. Along with these, the Centre has received several complaints regarding nudity and explicit language in content on streaming platforms. While issues regarding content on popular streaming services make headlines, the situation for home-grown OTT platforms is much different. According to a report by Hindustan Times, many local platforms allegedly stream soft-porn, which has managed to stay under the radar.
Will This Make Your Favourite Streaming Service Censored in India?
Major concern for most creators, content providers, and viewers is censorship. India is notorious for censoring movies and shows. Back in 2019, content providers like Netflix and Jio had got together to discuss the repercussions of OTT regulations. As reported by The Quint, streaming platforms believe that regulations would threaten artistic freedom.
What these OTT platforms are talking about is pretty much on point. In February 2020, Disney Plus Hotstar had blocked an episode from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight which criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It should be noted that the Central Government hadn’t even asked Disney Plus Hotstar to block the episode. One could only imagine how worse the situation could get if new regulations that largely focus on content moderation become the norm.
“A couple of weeks ago we did a story on India’s PM – Narendra Modi…which some die hard Modi supporters like Arnab Goswami, the Tucker Carlson of India, did not enjoy”
Dear @iamjohnoliver – Indians are very cultured folks – we take umbrage if our father is insulted. Ok? pic.twitter.com/Zq8gIbXUaP
— The DeshBhakt (@TheDeshBhakt) March 9, 2020
Take the example of Indian TV and movies, which are strictly governed by Cable Networks Regulation Act (2005) and the Central Board of Film Certification. In a world where comedies like The Office, IT Crowd, and Silicon Valley are admired, the most popular comedy series in India is ‘Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashmah’ as TV writers cannot talk about hard-hitting topics like race, sex, religion, and politics. In the case of CBFC, the organization constantly censors scenes in movies, some of which are ‘A’ rated. For these organizations, adults cannot watch movies that are meant for adults, without restrictions. To no one’s surprise, the CBFC had blurred out bottles and glasses of alcohol from Ford v Ferrari and even censored the word ‘bitch’ from a dialogue.
Having strict regulations in place hasn’t worked well for the entertainment industry either. Bollywood movies like Padmaavat, Jodhaa Akbar, Oh My God, and many others have been through legal issues during their release and Jodhaa Akbar was even banned in some states. If the Central Government’s intention is to stop complaints from viewers, moderating content is not the solution.
OTT platforms are the last resort for pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Extensive content moderation and censorship will entirely kill the sliver of hope for artistic freedom. The new OTT regulations could lead to increased instances of self-censorship, similar to what Disney Plus Hotstar did with John Oliver’s show, and allow government organizations to filter what people can watch even before the content in released. After all, we are living in a time where a stand-up comedian stayed in jail for over a month for a joke he didn’t perform on stage.
We need to find an objective way to define the intention behind certain type of content, instead of calling it offensive and explicit by viewing it through a narrow perspective. This would happen only after open discussions among creators, content providers, viewers, and the governing bodies.
The Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar has recently shared that India’s new OTT guidelines are just around the corner and the stakeholders will be notified soon. In meantime, the IAMAI has recently announced a toolkit for self-regulation of OTT platforms in India.
After being rejected previously by the Centre, IAMAI’s modified self-regulation toolkit has been adopted by 17 platforms including Disney Plus Hotstar, Zee5, Netflix, MX Player, Amazon Prime Video, Jio Cinema, SonyLiv, Discovery Plus, Hungama, HoiChoi, Eros Now, and more. According to The Quint, the toolkit titled ‘Universal Self-Regulation Code for OCCPs (Online Curated Content Providers) aims to address consumer content and other issues with content.
The signatories to the code include ZEE5, Viacom 18 (Voot), Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, SonyLiv, MX Player, Jio Cinema and will be effective from 10 February 2021@alnehaa reports#OTT #ottplatforms https://t.co/7YHXCjlfti
— Business Standard (@bsindia) February 11, 2021
The Universal Self-Regulation Code for OCCPs (via Medianama) has detailed prohibited content under the following categories:
- Content which promotes and encourages disrespect to the sovereignty and integrity of India.
- Content which represents a child engaged in real or simulated sexual activities or any
representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.
- Content which promotes and encourages terrorism and other forms of violence against the
State (of India) or its institutions.
- Content that has been banned for exhibition or distribution by online video service under
applicable laws or by any court of competent jurisdiction.
The second clause will help in avoiding disasters like Netflix’s Cuties, where the streaming service had received a lot of backlash as the movie showed minors in sexually-suggestive ways. Apart from that, the rest of guidelines seem vague and open to interpretation. The sheer vagueness of these clauses may lead to restricting content that could potentially show Indian institutions in a bad light. The toolkit also enables government organizations to send complaints to content providers, giving them authority to demand certain type of content to be removed.
The self-regulation code also deals with maturity ratings and description of subject matter themes such Language, Drug use, Nudity, Violence, and more. Popular platforms like Netflix and Disney Plus Hotstar have already implemented these. Along with these, the toolkit directs content providers to enable parental controls and restrict content intended for mature audiences. It also sets up a framework for filing and addressing consumer complaints as well as details penalties for OTT platforms.
Is There a Better Way?
Since the regulations focus mostly on content moderation, it ignores many other aspects of operating OTT platforms. For instance, what type of products and services can be advertised on ad-supported content platforms? Are the platforms paying enough to creators that have produced content independently or via external studios? What are objectively defined standards for moderating content that may be offensive to certain communities?
As the regulatory framework for OTT platforms is relatively new, it’s going to be far from perfect. With increasing feedback and discussions, the framework is expected to better govern OTT platforms. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry is yet to make the final decision on OTT regulations. The Centre may announce these regulations in the coming weeks.