OTT rules usher in a new era of perverse controls

The regulations show the government’s intent to rule an enormous area of mass communication in the digital world, perhaps more than the rules applicable to the print media
OTT rules usher in a new era of perverse controls

With 53% of India’s 100 crore people older than 14 years using WhatsApp, a totally encrypted platform, it was only a matter of time before government stepped in to try to find out what on earth is going on. The numbers are staggering: 45 crore people watch YouTube while 41 are on Facebook. Even so, few were prepared for the avalanche of instructions that tumbled out on February 25. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics) Rules, 2021, left nothing to imagination but quite a bit to later disputes. As former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said, rather tactfully, these regulations appear to be “hasty”. 

The regulations show the government’s intention to govern an enormous area of mass communication in the digital world, perhaps more than the rules applicable to the print media, television and films. What distinguishes digital communication is its reliance on OTT or ‘over the top’ technologies that work through ‘cloud storage’ rather than cables or radio waves (that even television uses). 

OTT comes in three forms, the first is social media platforms or ‘intermediaries’ like WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram that only facilitate traffic of messages and visuals between users. The second consists of ‘online curated content’ like direct digital transmission of, say, web serials and movies that is offered by Netflix, Amazon Prime, Voot, Hotstar, etc. This genre became immensely popular during the pandemic when cinema halls were shut. The third sub-sector relates to ‘digital online news’ that has beaten the print media in terms of viewership. Though not yet profitable, it has compelled mainstream media to produce digital versions as well, and they face new controls. The targets are, however, originally-digital news services like Firstpost, Scroll, The Quint and The Wire that are quite vocal against the regime. They could not be cowed down or won over, like much of mainstream media. 

The new rules seek, quite unapologetically, to control each of these three domains. But this is easier said than done. The field is just too vast and technologies change too rapidly. To begin with, social media platforms have been directed to check content and block items that are “defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invasive of another’s privacy, including bodily privacy, insulting or harassing on the basis of gender, libellous, racially or ethnically objectionable” and so on. These are pious intentions, but such offences are quite punishable under the existing laws as well. 

What is conspicuously absent in this blacklist is “statement against religious groups” and vicious hate-propagating trolls who terrorise all dissenters on Twitter and Facebook. The new powers under rule 4(1)(d) directing platforms to remove certain materials within 36 hours and under rule 5(2) to locate the “originators” of news may well be used only against dissenters. “Patently false and untrue news” are targeted, but everyone knows that these are systematically produced by powerful, politically-backed groups. One only hopes the regulations succeed in ridding the net of pornographic, paedophilic or non-consensual intimate visuals, as intended. 

The second domain, i.e., streaming films through OTT (called ‘online curated content’) and the third, ‘online news’, are now subject to strict categorisation, code of ethics and an elaborate mechanism of grievance-disposal. Films have not only to clearly indicate the level of audience aimed for, but follow a rigorous all-encompassing code.

While some policing may have been necessary, one hopes that this does not stifle creativity and counter culture. The catch, however, lies in ‘grievances’ voiced literally by any person and such grievances now have three levels of disposal. The first is through self-regulation and then by appeal to industry associations. The latter have to set up adjudicatory bodies headed by a senior judge who is screened by the government. If this does not give relief, the aggrieved can approach the government, that can then play god.

The dissatisfaction will be decided by a high-sounding ‘oversight mechanism’ which is basically a committee consisting of officials from eight ministries — irrespective of whether they understand the nuances or not. Thus, a single person who feels his sensitivity or sensibility is ‘hurt’ by either a digital news item or by an online film or web series can soon play havoc. We may recall how the web series called Tandav faced strong allegations of insulting one religion and its producers had to run from court to court to ward off arrest. 

With such an ever-increasing tendency of the self righteous to be alarmed at perceived slights to one’s religion and culture, this ‘oversight mechanism’ is likely to be quite overburdened by complaints. The very mechanism may simply backfire. In any case, even the best of intentions always find a way of getting ‘caged’ in the wonderland of bureaucracy. One can foresee the ‘Authorised Officer’ under rule 12, probably a joint secretary of the information and broadcasting ministry, presiding over the destiny of India’s culture and tradition. The regulations are surely creating another Frankenstein, who will exercise his powers as “desired by the minister” and those who direct the minister. The attempt to tame troublesome online news portals and instil traditional virtues in OTT films and web series is surely ushering in a new era of perverse controls.


Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati

(Tweets @jawharsircar)

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