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How the OTT industry views the govt’s ‘soft-touch’ regulations

The new rules focus on Code of Ethics, three-tier mechanism.

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KOLKATA: The last couple of months have seen multiple controversies over original shows on over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. A number of petitions have been filed in court, members of Parliament questioned the government on OTT regulations, and many of the popular web-series were decried by the public. Amid this mayhem, the government introduced a new regulatory framework on Thursday largely focusing on a three-tier mechanism. While information & broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar emphasised on the “soft-touch regulation” aspect, the industry is still studying its larger impact on the sector.

The three-tier redressal mechanism includes self-regulation by the platforms, a self-regulatory body headed by a retired high court or Supreme Court judge or a very eminent person in the category and oversight by the government.

Under the new rules, the Centre has also introduced a Code of Ethics which restricts OTT players from showing any content prohibited under any law or by any court. Moreover, they have been asked to exercise due caution and discretion with regards to content which affects the sovereignty and integrity of India, threatens, endangers or jeopardises the security of the state and is detrimental to India’s friendly relations with foreign countries.

Along with that, the OTT platforms will now have to classify the content into five age based categories and implement parental locks classified as U/A 13+ or higher.

“As per the announcement, the regulations will indeed create some or little level playing field vs TV industry, which was completely absent earlier. This will lead to consolidation or shut down of small/niche OTT apps that have always been relying upon obscene content, which will augur well for large global giant OT’s and TV broadcaster-based OTTs,” Elara Capital VP research analyst (media) Karan Taurani said.

A senior media executive willing to stay unnamed also agreed that the platforms which actively push vulgar content may now need to rethink their content strategy. This is no longer a self-regulatory mechanism but a co-regulatory mechanism. The executive, more importantly, noted that it has opened the gates for government interference if we look at the third level. The government will hold OTTs accountable if they do not abide by their code of ethics, he added. Notably, OTT platforms can be asked to issue an apology, include a warning card or disclaimer, reclassify ratings, make modifications, or even remove content under new provisions.

During Thursday’s press briefing, many journalists pointed out that stakeholders had not been consulted. Javadekar responded that the government had held consultations in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, adding that the OTT players had been asked to create guidelines but that did not happen. The media executive mentioned earlier said that the IAMAI and industry failed to bring consensus over codes, kept changing and lost relevance in front of the government.  

Some industry experts shared the view that the Centre’s way of strong-arming the regulations without consultation would lead to censorship of content on streaming services.

“The new regulatory framework brings OTT players and social media platforms under censorship. Today with the reach of these platforms, OTT is on its way to replace TV as we know it. The regulation was expected. Hence, this will massively change the way content is created on the internet. As it stands today, self-regulation by OTT platforms hasn’t really worked, and in the absence of a redressal system, various groups have gone to court to pull down content because it hurts certain sentiments,” Grapes Digital national business head Rajeesh Rajagopalan said.

“But with the government sitting on the regulatory board, OTT platforms will definitely feel the heat regarding the kind of content that will be produced. With guardrails of religion, national integration, etc means it will give the regulatory body to censor any content which does not fall under the framework of approved content or which they think is propaganda against the government," he added.

A senior media observer stated that broadly, the regulations are in the right direction and it is along the lines of expectation. However, now it remains to be seen if the ministry is overstepping. Moreover, the monitoring bodies will have to be cautious about the authenticity of the complaints to prevent the misuse of rules by rival forces against a platform.

“This is a great opportunity for broadcasters to scale up and take advantage of the strict regulations announced on video OTT. The consolidation of the OTT digital industry may now happen much earlier than expected due to these regulations, wherein broadcaster OTTs can go a long way if they are able to address the issue of  tech/AI – better user experience, distribution via the b2c route for their app vs heavy reliance on aggregators and telcos,” Taurani noted.

Most video streaming players refrained from commenting on the new guidelines at the moment. However, producer Ekta Kapoor, who runs the OTT platform ALTBalaji, welcomed the rules. "Heartening to see the new guidelines that provide a level playing field for digital news media and OTT platforms.#ResponsibleFreedom," she tweeted.

While the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) expressed their discontent on Wednesday with the Centre preparing guidelines without consulting industry stakeholders, it has upheld the move.  

"IAMAI has welcomed the much awaited Intermediary Guidelines 2021. The Guidelines, focused primarily on consumer complaint, will help consumers of online curated content, social media users and online news and current affairs resolve their complaints in a process oriented manner," IAMAI president Subho Ray said.

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