The Netflix app is displayed on a television. (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Self Regulation Or Self Censorship? Netflix, Hotstar, Voot...Sign Code

Streaming giants Netflix, Hotstar and a clutch of other platforms have signed a self-regulatory code for not showing in India any content considered disrespectful to national symbols and religions, in a bid to avoid a potential censorship crackdown in the booming market.

The platforms, including SonyLiv and Viacom’s Voot, have agreed to follow a voluntary industry code of conduct that provides for not showing content that disrespects the national emblem or flag, promotes terrorism or outrages religious sentiments of any community.

The move is being seen as a bid to thwart any action by the government in the form of potential censorship or regulations.

The self-regulatory Code of Best Practices—whose other signatories include Zee5, Arre, ALT Balaji, Jio Digital Life and Eros Now—has been signed under the aegis of industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India.

Amazon Prime, however, has not signed up for the pact that also covers sexual topics, among others, and sets a mechanism for consumer complaints.

“We provide customers with compelling content they love and creators a forum to create unique and passionate stories,” an Amazon India spokesperson said. “While we're assessing the situation, we believe that the current laws are adequate to fulfill this mission.”

IAMAI said the code has been in the works for over a year. “The Code... establishes guiding principles for Online Curated Content Providers to conduct themselves in a responsible and transparent manner and at the same time ensures that consumer interests are protected,” it said in a statement.

Under the code, the players will ensure that they do not deliberately and maliciously make available any content which disrespects the national emblem or national flag; or shows a child engaged in real or simulated sexual activities.

Also prohibited is content which outrages religious sentiments of any class, section or community; which promotes or encourages terrorism; and content that has been banned for distribution by online video service under law or by any court.

“This effort brings together the key pillars of protecting interests of consumers in viewing content of their choice and defending creative freedom. This shall ensure that all signatories to the code agree to adhere to uniform principles and guidelines contained in this code, in letter and spirit,” said the code.

The signatories, it said, will adopt the best practices to ensure a clear and transparent disclosure system informing viewers about the nature of content and advise viewer discretion so consumers are informed about the content that they are accessing.

This would be done by classifying content into distinct categories like general/universal viewing, content requiring parental guidance and content which is solely meant for age-appropriate audiences.

The nine players have also pledged to display a content descriptor or guidance message informing viewers about nature of the content, particularly around age-inappropriate content for minors.

The code also involves a complaint redressal mechanism.

“All signatories ... agree to internally appoint/institute, as part of their operational systems, a dedicated person, team or department to receive and address any consumer related concerns and complaints in relation to content of the respective providers,” reads the code.

Such a department will “act as the single point of contact for receiving all complaints from users; and examine the complaints in accordance with the principles in this code and accordingly advise other departments/internal stakeholders within the relevant OCC Provider,” it said, adding that complaints will have to be acknowledged within three working days of receipt.

In case of violation of the code, the department concerned after holding discussions will have to communicate to the aggrieved person within 30 days the precautionary measures taken to address the complaint.

Some industry watchers have, however, flagged concerns over the self-regulation code. Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, said the code is restrictive and will hamper creative freedom. “ Web streaming has been at the forefront of pushing boundaries. By voluntarily choosing to put restrictions on creative speech, these platforms are conforming to demands of nanny or prude environment which is not in line with younger generation, who do not find it offensive.”