India Amends Norms To Regulate Online Media
Icons for apps of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg).

India Amends Norms To Regulate Online Media

In a step towards regulating digital media, the Indian government has approved an amendment to bring online news portals and content providers such as Netflix under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

President Ram Nath Kovind has approved the amendment to the rules governing allocation of businesses within different ministries. The notification comes into effect immediately.

The Broadcasting Ministry had expressed the need for regulation of online media during a Supreme Court hearing in the Sudarshan TV case. Citing that there’s no check on such platforms, the ministry argued that “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”.

To be sure, while the News Broadcasting Standards Authority handles complaints against news platforms, online streaming apps like Netflix, Hotstar and Alt Balaji have entered into a content code prescribing the practices they will follow for the content that they stream.

Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor of Medianama, said this will result in the government imposing regulations on online streaming services to regulate their content, which will lead to their censorship.

Streaming services won’t fight back against any such code because they don’t want to take on the government and so, effectively user choice will get reduced and what’s meant to be private viewing will get controlled and regulated by the government. This is effectively going to impact our freedom to view what we want in the privacy of our home. It will lead to pressure on streaming services to conform to some government determined self-regulatory code and lead to censorship down the road.
Nikhil Pahwa, founder, Medianama

As a next step, the Broadcasting Ministry will put in place a framework to implement the regulation, Chandrima Mitra, partner at DSK Legal, told BloombergQuint. “Regulation of online and digital media will follow the same or similar journey as the theatrical films have been following through the censorship certificate route. This stems from the right provided by the Constitution to us. However, freedom comes with reasonable restrictions,” she said.

The “almost absolute” creative freedom which was there to date will now have to follow laid down reasonable restrictions, Mitra said.

According to Sudarshan Singh Shekhawat, partner at Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan Attorneys, the online sector was previously largely unregulated, barring some judicial precedents in case of disputes like defamation or IPR violations. “While the government has a responsibility to add clarity for stake holders, we will have to wait and watch how or if critical issues, especially for subscription-based streaming services like tariff, content regulation, consumer protection, etc. are finally addressed,” he said.

Online media consumption is witnessing a surge currently. While the subscription-based models like OTT may expect regulations similar to DTH platforms, it will be a massive challenge to regulate freely available online content like that on YouTube. Since the words used in the notification are broad, it is not clear if they also intend to cover social media platforms, which are equally capable of hosting audio-video programmes made available by content providers.
Sudarshan Singh Shekhawat, partner, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan Attorneys
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