Government Regulating Online News and OTT Platforms: A Step Backwards for India

India has always had an audience that consumed western media. With its commentary on several topics that plague the world and its openness to seemingly mundane yet, hushed topics, countries like ours found an outlet that they resonated with. We can see this with Over the Top (OTT) platforms gaining popularity as soon as they ventured into India. These video streaming service providers, namely Netflix and Amazon Prime, mark a fresh change as they are seemingly independent with their content not being withheld by anything. Something India hasn’t experienced before.

This, however, may change. According to a report by The Hindu, the Union government has brought OTT platforms under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. As stated by the government, with set organizations to look after regulating content on television, print, news, and entertainment, “content online fell into a black hole with no oversight.” What this means is films and audio-visual programs as well as news and current affairs content that is available on these platforms will now be monitored by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. This change, in the words of ministry officials, enforces a greater discipline online.

We don’t know what this takeover means yet as the ministry hasn’t given out any details as of now. However, it is learned that the same rules that are applied in the Cable Television Network Regulation Act, 1995 may serve as a template to frame rules for online content. Program Code that governs content on TV lists several don’ts that channels are required to observe and follow. There is a possibility that the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre, which currently monitors content on TV, maybe extended to include online content.

We already see a revolt against contents of such platforms with an FIR, recently, being filed against Netflix for showcasing a kissing scene between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, against the backdrop of a Hindu temple, in the series A Suitable Boy. The complaint was launched by BJP youth leader Gaurav Tiwari for apparently hurting religious sentiments and promoting ‘love jihad’. With the government seizing more and more control over what we consume, our nation, which is slowly moving towards a more progressive and liberated society could once again be under one strict religious party’s beliefs, flaring a divide further.

This takes us back to India’s long struggle with piracy. Films, recently released, were commonly sold in the form of CDs, in black, at almost every corner. We see this now as torrents, with online downloads of content easily accessible by anyone. In March alone we saw a 62% spike in the rates of film piracy due to the lockdown and the fact that not a lot of people had paid for OTT platforms subscriptions. According to an article by mint ”it has never been easier to view content illegally than now”. With newly enforced restrictions we may only be left with such methods and India once again will have to deal with combating this problem.

If the content on OTT platforms is regulated under the same strict guidelines that are followed to monitor content on television, for example, it may be a huge step backwards for India. With the arrival of these platforms, we saw a new wave of Indian cinema with the freedom to talk about once hushed topics from an Indian perspective rather than relying solely on western takes on these issues. We saw an audience not just open but resonating with films which would once be known as bold films like Lust Stories or A Suitable Boy. The actual consequence of this measure is yet to be seen. For now, we can only hope the measures taken don’t undo the path that has been paved by these films.

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