Big Brother watching OTT, closely

Lloyd Mathias | Updated on March 01, 2021

To boost creativity in content creation, regulation must have a soft touch

The latest government move on streaming platforms can crimp consumer choice and stifle creativity

OTT platforms recorded exponential growth in 2020 thanks to the ongoing pandemic, with people spending more time at home.

Most OTT (over-the-top) platforms were quick to put out a variety of content attracting all age groups and interests. Large production houses also turned to OTTs for new movie releases as theatres were shut for the better part of 2020. The extensive content catalogue rolled out meant that the content creator had the freedom of expression, and users had the freedom of choice regarding content.

In a move that may have a substantial impact on OTT's growth and constrain creative freedom and consumer's right to choose, the Centre had earlier issued a notification bringing OTT platforms and digital news media under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

This move was significant as OTT platforms so far have been self-regulated and followed the provisions under the Information and Technology Act, 2000. Now OTT platforms will have to implement a three-level grievance redress mechanism.

Level 1 being with the publishers themselves, where they should appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer based in India and shall decide on every grievance within 15 days. Level 2 with the self-regulatory body headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court or a High Court, and Level 3 being with the Oversight Mechanism under the I&B Ministry.

This opens things to a great deal of interpretation or misinterpretation: How does one define a grievance and that too in the context of an OTT where the choice to watch or not is with an individual user?

These guidelines may open the floodgates for a great deal of litigation over the implementation, which our already overloaded courts can do without. The government has also introduced new guidelines to regulate content on OTT platforms.

Content regulation

Under the new guidelines, OTT players will self-classify the content into five age-based categories- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). OTT players will also have to ensure an effective parental lock for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher.

It’s very fair to ask such a thing and the important thing to note here is that major players like Netflix and Amazon Prime already have an effective system for parents to tailor, control and monitor their children’s experience and filter out content not appropriate for their age. But is this going to be a pathway to future government censorship?

From time to time, the government has raised concerns on the content published by OTT platforms. In October 2019, the Centre indicated a list of don’ts for OTT platforms and directed them to come up with self-regulation. In response, OTT platforms adopted a transparent self-regulation code framed under the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).

But the government decided to set it aside, as the code failed to include a list of prohibited content and didn't have a satisfactory framework to address complaints. And in November last year, in a gazette notification that surprised many, the government brought all streaming platforms under the I&B Ministry, raising the fear of a new censorship regime.

Such moves can have severe consequences on consumer access and choice and will seriously impede creative freedom. More so, regulating OTT content will raise questions on the unregulated content all over the internet, a lot of which is user generated.

Can the government monitor this as well? Will the government prowl the internet and advice on what content an adult should consume? Consumers want fresh and engaging content that can be accessed from the comfort of their homes. OTT players have provided this, ranging from premieres of films to new TV series, empowering viewers with informative and entertaining content suiting every need.

While broadcast content on television and movies follows a push approach, OTT platforms follow a pull approach, wherein users request the paid platform service for the content, to which the system responds by providing the content on-demand.

Thus, the content is meant for private viewing and should not be subjected to similar regulations that apply to television broadcasts. But under the I&B Ministry, the likelihood of regulations for OTT content similar to broadcast content is very high.

This new in-home entertainment has given rise to user-generated content (UGC) and boosted demand for new direct-to-consumer apps. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for streaming content.

Space to niche content

The OTT platforms have also given space and mileage to niche content that’s devoid of superstars, big banners or mega-production houses, and unlikely to be released in multiplexes. They also provide new genres of content and opportunities to budding artists, ensuring artistic expressions and creative freedom are not impacted.

The Centre’s move is likely to reduce both creators and viewers’ options. OTT content is a growing sector and requires enablement, not heavy-handed regulation.

Many artists and creators have also found a level playing field with the rise of OTT and were able to build and retain a livelihood even during the lockdown.

In the United States, policy experts argued that the government should not maintain a paternalistic role in technology if they want society to benefit from technological development. The Electronic Freedom Foundation argued that different laws could not govern the same content because they would simply make the law obsolete.

The government and critics of OTT platforms should be mindful that the internet gives users total freedom to choose the content they want. The users have discretion as to what they choose to watch. The government should treat the internet as a marketplace of ideas that transgresses geopolitical considerations.

It should adopt policies anchored and follow the logic of technological change. Regulation needs to be carefully considered so that it doesn’t expose and jeopardise customers’ rights. Governments should seek solutions that protect the environment that enable the growth of the internet and keep the internet open and free, which in turn will retain the capacity to foster innovation and economic growth.

The writer is a Business Strategist and an Angel Investor.

Published on March 01, 2021

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