Content Regulation I&B Ministry Guidelines for OTT Platforms in India

OTT platforms have gained popularity as a medium for mature audiences. Gripping storylines, hard-hitting scenes and the close-to-real situations woo such audiences at these platforms. 

However, this freedom was not taken well by certain makers and their content came out to be extremely objectionable; at least the rising demands of taking the recently released series like ‘Sacred Games’ off-air indicate so. 

With this situation as a backdrop, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry has decided to take the matters in its hands and is busy formulating the guidelines for OTT platforms in India.

A Brief History

Cinema makers have always been vocal about their desire to be allowed a self-regulatory framework. In September 2020, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) presented their self-regulatory framework, which was signed by the major global OTT players functional in India.

Interestingly, the prominent OTT platform like Amazon Prime, which chose to stay away from it earlier, signed it, according to an Economic Times story.

But, the I&B Ministry was not satisfied with the stipulated guidelines and asked to reconsider it because of the following points:

  1. It lacked an external monitoring body
  2. It also did not provide a clear cut process flow of complaint redressal 
  3. It had no clarity on the definition of prohibited content

Why did Content Regulation on OTT Turn into a Growing Need?

It all started with the release of an Indian web series ‘Sacred Games’, and the hoopla that followed. The objectionable language, scenes that were no less than soft porn and presentation of communities, people and professions in poor light sparked a debate. The ban was sought; the issue is still under consideration.

Not very long ago, ‘Tandav’, another web series, got into a legal tangle which seems to be never ending. Its alleged objectionable portrayal of Hindu deities along with an objectionable portrayal of the Prime Minister has put the I & B ministry in serious thinking mode. In this case, even the Supreme Court of India intervened. On Jan 27 this year, it refused to provide protection to the show makers from arrest in the case where they are accused of hurting religious sentiments.

All these developments have made the case of putting the digital media under the ambit of the I & B ministry stronger. The ministry is now contemplating censorship of OTT content just like cinema and print are regulated by the respective Acts. 

Developments in November 2020

The scene became more like a tussle between two governing bodies in November 2020. I&B could not accept the proposals made by the Internet and Mobile Association of India due to the reasons mentioned above. 

Secondly, the lax structure of the regulatory framework which created unpleasant conditions in the country compelled the I & B Ministry to exercise some concrete yet quick control. Thus, the ministry stated clearly that regulations levels have to be rethought.

Challenges ahead

Indian content regulators have two approaches to consider. Either they go the US way that allows minimally regulated content on the digital platform, or they adopt the South Asian Countries’ policies that exercise strict regulatory control over all forms of media. Choosing among the two may prove tricky.

According to an industry expert, negligible entry barriers are another challenge as the licensing requirements of the digital platforms are close to nil. 

Overall Impact

Digital or OTT platforms are perceived as the hotspots for free expression, and creative or artistic freedom. But, the fact that it reaches people of all ages in an uninhibited manner makes subtlety a necessary quality in content being served. 

Regulation is going to be a tough task and a lengthy one too. It may result in a delay in the releases, which will further mean a loss for the filmmakers. 

In contrast to this, the Government needs to ensure that content that is easily available online should also meet certain standards. A direct reference to any governmental policy or hurting people’s religious sentiments resulting from a poorly researched content cannot be taken lightly. This may lead to instability and lack of faith. In fact, any content or artistic creation that crosses the line needs to be checked.

At the third angle of this issue is FDI. The rapid growth of OTT on financial grounds cannot be overlooked. The progressive nature of OTT that attracts foreign investors needs safeguarding, which will require the I & B ministry to be lenient in approach. However, the task that remains is to ascertain the limit of acceptance.  

OTT content has become a topic of discussion due to the challenges posed by its questionable relevance in the recent past. In November, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry took over the control and is working with the OTT players to work upon the guidelines which can be beneficial for all the stakeholders involved.