Amid apprehensions about the form of regulation expected on the over-the-top (OTT) platforms, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology has entered the self-regulation-versus-certification debate with a series of proceedings, the latest on February 4 with detailed examinations of expert witnesses.

The Committee, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, was to review the functioning of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) but the extraneous issue of regulating OTT platforms, a market that has experienced exponential growth during the Covid-19 period, was discussed at length with the two “unofficial witnesses” – CBFC member Vani Tripathi Tikkoo and producer and director Kabir Khan of the Bajrangi Bhaijan fame who is also a member of the Producers Guild of India.

Khan reportedly argued that if at all the OTT platforms have to be regulated, self-regulation by the industry should be the preferred route. Tripathi reportedly favoured regulation via certification. A surprise intervention was, sources said, by actor and BJP MP Sunny Deol who took a very liberal view of regulation and underscored the importance of adult decision-making in viewership.

Before this, the Committee had on January 13, examined the CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi as well. Joshi, along with members such as Gautami Tadimalla, Vidya Balan and Vani Tripathi, the CBFC has undergone a subtle but significant transformation from the controversy-ridden period under the previous chairman Pahlaj Nihalani. The CBFC under Joshi and his colleagues have acted more in the capacity of a certifying body for films rather than a censorship platform, giving a go-ahead to new-age films such as Shubh Mangal Savdhan and Dam Laga Ke Haisha . The CBFC certifies as many as 20,000 films in a year.

21.8% growth

Tripathi, a BJP member and former spokesperson of the party, apparently had a nuanced view in favour of standardisation of the OTT industry that is predicted to grow at 21.8 per cent CAGR — from ₹4,564 crore to ₹11,976 crore between 2018 and 2023. She maintained consistency with the stance towards a certification that she took with filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor in the November 2020 policy report titled “Embracing Non-Linearity: Embracing the Future of India’s Entertainment Industry”.

Unlike Khan who advocated self-regulation by the industry, Tripathi was for regulation via certification. She reportedly underlined the importance of standardisation in an industry that has witnessed unprecedented and exponential growth during the Covid-19 period. A regulatory framework ensures standardisation while it is also required to monitor unrestricted viewing of violence, objectification of women and sexually explicit content.

Government’s regulation

The government is moving towards regulation of digital content providers and has rejected the self-regulation code drawn up by 15 significant OTT platforms including Netflix, Disney Hotstar and Amazon Prime. On November 9, 2020, via notification, films and audio-visual programmes made available by online content providers as also news and current affairs on online platforms were brought within the purview of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Regulation of online content is still at a nascent stage although countries like Singapore have a code of practices for OTT and video-on-demand services by way of age-related classification. In Australia, the Broadcasting Services Act, 1992 is the principal legislation requiring content classification as also restricting access to content. In India, content on OTT platforms has thus far escaped regulation because neither the Cinematograph Act, 1952 which governs public viewing of cinema and is the parent statute under which the CBFC has been established.