Digital/Online Media: Is content regulation by government necessary?

A recent government notification bringing digital/online media under the ambit of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has raised concerns regarding content regulation and censorship. As per the notification, digital/online media includes “Films and Audio-Visual programmes made available by online content providers” and “News and current affairs content on online platforms.” Should government be involved in content regulation?

Government intervention necessary:

Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar pointed out that while print media has a self-regulation mechanism, online media does not. “The government does not want to get into this. The government does not want to intervene and stop any freedom, but this is your responsibility. When the government is believing in you, you should set an example of responsible journalism and responsible freedom,” he said.

Arguing for regulation of digital media in the Supreme Court in the Sudarshan TV case, the government filed an affidavit which stated, “Electronic media would normally have a geographical barrier and would rarely have a global presence. Digital media, on the other hand, has global presence both in terms of content coming from abroad and the content going out from the country. Apart from spreading venomous hatred, deliberate and intended instigation to not only cause violence but even terrorism it is also capable of indulging in tarnishing the image of individuals and institutions. The said practice is, in fact, rampant.”

An editorial in The Hindu states, “More regulation is usually a problematic idea, bringing with it the real risk of censorship. But on one count at least this decision may have some merit, and that is if this is targeted at levelling the playing field by bringing new digital players within the purview of a regulation that non-digital players have been subject to all these years. New movies, before theatrical release, have to get through the certification process of the Central Board of Film Certification. In contrast, video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which have become key distributors for new movies and entertainment content and have gathered millions of subscribers in India in recent years, have not had to follow any such requirement. It cannot be denied that regulation, of the light-touch kind, which serves as an advisory for the content being presented to the viewers, plays a useful role.”

Prelude to censorship:

Several online content creators have condemned the government’s move fearing censorship. The Indian Express carried an article with quotes from directors and actors of web-based shows. Many have expressed unhappiness over the development and cautioned that censorship will lead to loss of great content and it will become difficult to compete with content creators from abroad who do not have any such restrictions.

An article in Deccan Herald noted, “Many journalists and critics of the government have been attacked and arrested and some of them have faced sedition charges. Internet and other communication facilities have been denied to the people of Kashmir for over a year. In view of all this, the government’s move to regulate digital and online media is an attempt to control the media and to curb free speech.”

Although online content providers have worked on a self-regulatory code in India, the government has not been keen on approving the code. “Last year, with government hinting that it will like content on OTTs to be regulated, eight top streaming platforms had come together to issue a self-regulatory code that laid down a set of guiding principles, ranging from avoiding disrespecting national symbols, child pornography, promotion of terrorism and any content that ‘maliciously’ outrages religious sentiments. However, the government had refused to back this move,” an article in The Week notes.

DIGIPUB News India Foundation, an organization for digital-only news publications, put out a statement asking for wider consultations before bringing in regulatory changes. “A restrictive regulatory framework could seriously inhibit its capacity to grow and realise the dream of a digital India with news media companies competing with the best in the world. The government’s policy interventions and prescriptions could seriously limit that potential rather than provide a conducive growth environment to Indian companies and the Indian digital sector,” the statement read.

P.S. For more information, read Medianama’s complete guide to OTT content regulation in India here.

Internet and Mobile Association of India’s (IAMAI) Self-Regulation Code for online curated content providers can be found here.