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Will MIB crack the whip on online content: Experts debate

There's a fine line between regulation and censorship, which the Centre must now tread

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KOLKATA: It's been an oft debated issue over the past few years: how does one keep a tab on free as a bird, digital sector - OTT and diigtal news platforms? With the government bringing it under the regulatory oversight of the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) many a conservative who has complained about the content on streaming services may well heave a sigh of relief. But it is  exactly this which is creasing the brow of many a digital executive as they wonder now  if their creative freedom is about to be curtailed with the leash of a draconian censorship law.  But experts believe there is no reason to panic at the moment.

They say that so far, the matter of digital content regulation was neither here nor there, dangling between the MIB and ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY). The government’s move was aimed at drawing lines and clearly defining what comes under whose ambit. According to industry experts, MEITY has less knowledge about content and was also not very active in the sphere.

“There is certainly a need for some kind of regulation. If self-regulation is adopted, exercised, and disciplined, that would have been ideal. That’s what the industry had signed up for some time back. Putting everything under censorship would be one extreme step which could be very difficult for the industry to work on as the OTT segment is a very different business in terms of content, infrastructure, investment, and challenges,” said PwC India media, entertainment & sports advisory partner a& leader Raman Kalra.

He went on to add that there would be a need for the government to work in very close consultation with the various stakeholders in the industry and arrive at a middle ground. “You can’t have a completely unregulated environment. On the other hand, you can’t have a very tightly controlled censorship driven framework,” he quipped.

Elara Capital VP – research analyst (Media) Karan Taurani conjectured that the ministry may be formulating a framework for regulating the OTT space but that may not be very anti-digital in nature.

Since the industry cannot be left unregulated, the government’s gazette notification will ensure that the entire media ecosystem will be aligned in terms of processes and overview under MIB, commented former SonyLiv head and Kurate Digital Consulting’s Uday Sodhi.

“It is still early days to predict the impact. I think it has done the re-categorisation and recognised OTT as a proper medium and therefore put it under MIB. This is the right way to go about. It basically integrates the entire content ecosystem whether it is entertainment content or news, whether it is digital or TV,” he added.

In terms of censorship, Sodhi was of the view that change in ministry will not change the Centre’s take on the matter, which has been a hot button issue for a while now. But he believes that MIB will not impose any censorship, rather it will follow the self regulation model in traditional media.

On the subject of investment in the OTT sector, Kalra stated that it will be affected if - and only if - there is a heavy regulatory environment. The harder it becomes to create a good content funnel, the slower will be the growth of the sector. However, he qualified his statement by saying that it’s still early days. On the other hand, Taurani claimed this will not discourage global OTT giants from investing, or impact the streaming sector negatively in a big way.

“We look forward to working with the ministry to implement our industry's self-regulation efforts. As responsible content creators, we want to ensure this act not only takes cognisance of the nature of content being released, but also ensures that we safeguard creativity in this rapidly growing sector,” MX Player CEO Karan Bedi clarified.

On a slightly different note, another senior media professional added that the move is aimed more at the news segment. The good part, he said, is that MIB will now be able to keep a check on fake news and foreign companies’ control over news determination. But he cautioned against the misuse of power as well. Things will get sticky from a political point of view if the action turns out to be ‘A vs B.' However, the ministry will need a piece of huge machinery if it really tries to monitor every piece of news content.

With an increasing number of services  getting into streaming -  and some have  content which can  be construed as crossing the line of decency by a sensitive India today - it behooves the mainline streaming players to quickly come up with a self regulatory mechanism which is acceptable to the MIB.  Also, those streamers who have not signed on the dotted line, need to arrive at an agreement with those who have.  So far the fledgling sector's efforts to come up with self-regulation under the IAMAI have not  really excited the regulator.

Advertisers, agencies, and  entertainment and news broadcasters have -  in their time - got together, buried their differences  and drawn up mechanisms which have kept audiences, and the government  satisfied.  OTT and digital outlets need to keep a picture in their minds: being forced to run to the censor board for every piece of content that they produce, should they fail to get a self regulatory code in place. That's a nightmare no OTT  executive would like to go through.

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