END OF OTT ?

The Union Government has decided to bring the video streaming OTT platforms under the ambit of The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. But what do the OTT platforms include?

OTT stands for ‘Over The Top’ and this platform refers to any streaming service that delivers content over the internet. These services deliver a plethora of content ranging from short films, movies, documentaries, web-series and so on. Most of us have been using OTT platforms for a significant period of time. They include streaming services like Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Zee etc.

Unlike in earlier time, where a cable operator would be the one responsible for the supply & availability of programming, in the modern era users can sign up for these services and access their offerings over the internet on the go.

In India, the regulation of such platform has been widely discussed for some time now. Also, there were several complaints from the public underlining the concern and need to regulate online content. The Maharashtra Police Cyber Cell on a complaint received from an alert citizen had taken action on production houses and its crew members for allegedly transmitting obscene and sexually explicit content over the Internet. Thus an FIR was registered under Section 292 of IPC, 67, 67(A) of the Information Technology Act 2000 and Sections 3 and 4 of Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. Not to forget about the various complaints regarding stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data by some apps in an unauthorized manner to servers located outside India. Thus, the data of the Indian users residing in servers outside India is a serious issue and can endanger sovereignty and integrity of India.

Following pressure to regulate the OTT platforms, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), a representative body of the OTT platforms had proposed a self-regulatory model, a Digital Curated Content Complaints Council. The proposal, however, was shot down by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which will now oversee these platforms.

Previously, there was no law or any autonomous body governing the digital content as it was a relatively new medium of entertainment. Online content providers come under the legal framework of the Information Technology Act 2000 but, unlike print and broadcast media, were not directly under any Ministry. President Ram Nath Kovind in a gazette notification issued last month stated that the online films, digital news and current affairs content will now come under the purview of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry headed by Prakash Javadekar.

No details as of now, but it is learnt that the Programme Code that governs content on TV and which found an outlet in the Cable Television Network Regulation Act, 1995, may serve as a template to frame rules for online content. The Programme Code lists several dont’s that channels are required to observe and follow. Currently, the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre, which was set up in 2008, is entrusted with the work of monitoring content on TV. It puts out reports on violations of the Programme Code. The findings go to an inter-ministerial committee. There is a possibility that the brief of the monitoring service could be extended to include online content

The Indian OTT market is currently valued at INR 35 billion. Also, it is currently the world’s fastest growing OTT market, and is all set to emerge as number 1 by 2023 in terms of revenue or valuation of the OTT content.  It’s popularity in the ongoing covid-19 crisis is best evidenced by the Indian Premier League that has seen its biggest ever viewership in its history, even though it was played without an audience in the stands in UAE.

The regulation of the OTT platform is targeted at leveling the playing field by bringing the 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.

But is the intent here to create a level playing field, and nothing more? And how will the regulatory mechanisms function? These will be the key questions. The fear is that this will just end up facilitating more governmental interference and censorship, especially problematic when it comes to regulating digital news. There is little to be said about the average politician’s appetite for independent journalism and political satire. In a democracy, whose progress is dependent on free speech, it is important then that regulation is not an excuse to stifle voices, especially those not palatable to the ruling class.

The digital economy regulations including for OTT services are evolving across the world. Some countries have started formulating and implementing these regulations while some are still pondering upon the idea. India could be a torch bearer for other countries by formulating and implementing suitable regulations that facilitate development of all stakeholders of digital economy. In the absence of such regulations, most of the gains are likely to be appropriated by digital giants because of their monopoly power, first mover advantage and deep pockets.

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