OTT Platforms under government regulation: as orthodox as it seems to be?


“There is no clarity on what they mean by digital media. The government talks about digital media and digital aggregators in the same breath but they are different things. Are they looking at licensing, are they looking at entry barriers, or are they looking at curbing digital media? We still don’t know,” 

Mr. M.K Venu, founding editor of news portal The Wire said.


The Freedom of speech and expression is an often debatable fundamental right enlisted in the Indian constitution. Curtailing the audience from what they exercise rights over, hasn't been very easy to tackle. The argument over the exercise of freedom of speech and expression has been very evident from the twisted path of violence and hatred it has taken India through.  


During the coronavirus-induced lockdown period, when the closure of film theatres led several production houses to release their films directly on Over The Top (OTT) platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and other OTT platforms. As a result, viewership on these platforms subsequently increased to an extent that according to statistics, 3 out of 4 people in the country are somehow connected and using these digital entertainment platforms. In a gazette notification issued on November 9, 2020 the government decided to bring OTT platforms under regulation of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry which was signed by President Ram Nath Kovind, online films, digital news and current affairs content now come under the purview of the I&B Ministry headed by Prakash Javadekar. This notification by the government has now become ground for an argument with various conflicting aspects of politics, commerce, law, entertainment, technological and the consumer sector.


The government’s stance on OTT regulation

Legal pronouncements like the Press Council, the National Broadcasting Agency and National Standards Council of India, Censor Board of Film Certification practice effective control and regulation over print media, news channels, advertising sector and film industry respectively. However, an equivalent regulatory body in consideration to OTT media had slowly become an imperative necessity. Regulation of creative content has been a part of the entertainment industry for a long time and there has been efficient supervision over them. With the evolution of the internet over the past decade, the entertainment industry and creative content has diversified in itself. In today’s era, all kinds of content be it vulgar, intimidating, promoting hate as well as pornographic media is available on the internet.   

According to the government, anything like creative media content must first be ‘strained’ before being served in the public domain to avoid any and all instances where a particular community is targeted, feels alienated or is hurtful to their sentiments. One such incident recently happened in Madhya Pradesh where Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha national secretary Gaurav Tiwari demanded an apology from Netflix and the makers of the series A Suitable Boy, and removal of “objectionable scenes”, which he said were also “encouraging love jihad”. Another reason behind the government’s current stance about OTT regulation is that the content on these platforms comes from all over the globe. Content which might be justifiable and non problematic for the regulatory boards of one nation might not really fall in line with the social, political and cultural constructs of the Indian viewership. As a result, such a statutory regulatory body must be present in the country. 


Criticism on OTT

Considering the several arbitrary decisions the current government has taken, the gazette notification about regulation of OTT platforms has made the people even more skeptical about the ruling party’s ‘bizarre’ decisions and furthermore, sparking fears of a  new censorship regime. Regulation on OTT content - the only and abundant sources of non-censored ‘original’ content has raised questions of freedom of expression, which in India needs a nuanced approach rather than a simple ‘for or against’ conclusion. 

The Wire puts forward the basic question in the viewer’s mind that definitely is true that the government has had to deal with politically sensitive and inflammable situations with the history of oppression and religious divide in our country. However, they continue asking if it is possible to protect public order and promote respect for one and all without affecting art and scholarship? Regulation on the platforms of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar etc. might also be seen as a threat to creativity, and realism. Despite a figurine of ‘independence’, ‘absolute freedom’ and ‘discretion’, surreal realism and connectivity with such content is something viewers connect with . Popular viewer sentiment remains that OTT platforms must not be “censored” and seldom tend to show resistance when it comes to constraining their claims. They are of the belief that it is the viewers who must be entitled to exercise their own discretion. 


From the above arguments, the question of regulation on the Over the Top platforms entails three fundamental questions:

  • Should these platforms be curtailed from the liberty to show content that might generate ethical and moral conflict, or hamper the law and order situation by any way?

  • Should they be allowed to self regulate themselves?

  • Should they be given absolute liberty to show content without any constraints- reasonable or unreasonable in a realm of freedom and let the audience exercise their own discretion? 


Towards the end, answering the question OTT Platforms under government regulation: as orthodox as it seems to be? As mentioned above, the answer is not as simple as a “yes or no”. When considering people’s freedom to speech and expression, maintaining a balanced ground is very important for the government for the peace as well as satisfaction of the people of the country. But, at the same time, it is important for us people to resist when the government turns completely machiavellian, but also, be ready to look out for the common ground that can be achieved by little sacrifice for the holistic harmony and solidarity of the people. Another important thing is to remember that our claims on certain privileges, might be an infringement with the rights of another, now I shall leave it on to you readers to draw your own ground of belief, resistance and perspective .