Bringing digital platforms under I&B Ministry may be a precursor to control, worry experts

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on November 15, 2020

Fears of being brought under the government’s control have been gnawing at online content providers

Many fear censorship, but others don’t think move gives Ministry power to regulate, yet

Fears of being brought under the government’s control have been gnawing at online content providers and news portals in the wake of the Centre’s decision to bring these platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

A gazette notification to this effect was issued on November 11.

However, , experts feel this move does not accord the ministry with the power to regulate or censor yet.

No new regulations

“There are no new regulations, that’s the first thing to understand (about this order). It’s essentially an administrative order which has been passed by the Government of India, designating the I&B Ministry as the nodal central ministry to look at two specific items of business — OTT platforms and digital online news media. There is no inherent power with the I&B Ministry to either regulate OTT platforms or news websites which arises from this allocation of business. So essentially, what’s important for people to understand is, this may be a precursor to legislation or regulations which may follow,” Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group, told BusinessLine.

Mishi Choudhary, founder of SFLC.in, a legal services organisation working on law, technology and policy. “Although there is no clarity about what this entails... it portends a regime with more interference from the Ministry of I&B and less reliance on self-regulation by the OTT platforms, extending the censorship heavy legacy to the internet.”

‘Rooted in the past’

Giraj Sharma, founder director of Behind the Moon, a brand consultancy, said, “This could lead to conflicts since (from) what we have observed so far, their content is likely to fall under ‘not permissible’ criterion of the ‘rooted in the past’ I&B Ministry. The need for this is obviously ‘better control’ and to ‘regulate’ what gets watched by over 18 crore subscribers.” While acknowledging that the fears of censorship are warranted, Gupta said: “It’s not as if there is immediate censorship which results from this specific action. However, the likely apprehension of it occurring in future does arise.”

But, as pointed out by Gupta, this move throws up a larger, pertinent question — should the government be in the business of regulating the media sector by itself, and what should be the ambit of such a regulation? Traditionally, in modern democracies, this role is being played through specialised regulators rather than by central government ministries, he said.

All we need is a framework for age classification, content descriptions for titles, access control tools and an efficient grievance redressal system instead of monitoring everyone’s viewing activities that they choose to pay for and are not publicly broadcasted, said Choudhary.

Also pertinent is the fact that there are laws concerning hate speech, libel, slander, defamation laws and other offences already applicable to online entertainment and news, Gupta pointed out. “So, I would say that the argument that these sectors are completely unregulated does not pass muster.”

The OTT sector is going through a boom right now and any entry barrier will hamper this growth and investments, said Partho Dasgupta, Management Consultant and ex- CEO at BARC India. “I would also expect the Ministry to call in experts from the industry to help them understand and monitor the sector,” he added. When asked about this order, veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal said: “Censorship in a democracy makes no sense. In fact, it makes nonsense of democracy itself. Self-regulation is absolutely essential to maintain our democracy since it recognises our immense diversity.”

But, it is never too late to get the content providers onboard and dispel their bonafide apprehensions and factor in their point of view, said Behind the Moon’s Sharma.

Published on November 15, 2020

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