India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which oversees programs beamed on television and screened in theatres in the country, will now also regulate policies for streaming platforms and digital news outlets in a move that is widely believed to kickstart an era of more frequent and stricter censorship on what online services air.
The new rules (PDF), signed by India’s President Ram Nath Kovind this week, might end the years-long efforts by digital firms to self-regulate their own content to avoid the broader oversight that impacts television channels and theatres and whose programs appeared on those platforms. (Streaming platforms may be permitted to continue to self-regulate and report to I&B, similar to how TV channels follow a programming code and their self-regulatory body works with I&B. But there is no clarity on this currently.)
For instance, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting currently certifies which movies hit theatres in the country and the scenes they need to clip or alter to receive those certifications. But movies and shows appearing on services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video did not require a certification and had wider tolerance for sensitive subjects.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has previously also ordered local television channels to not air sensitive documentaries.
India’s Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology previously oversaw online streaming services, but it did not enforce any major changes. The ministry also oversees platforms where videos are populated by users.
Officials of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting have previously argued that with proliferation of online platforms in India -- there are about 600 million internet users in the country -- there needs to be parity between regulations on them and traditional media sources.
“There is definitely a need for a level playing field for all media. But that doesn’t mean we will bring everybody under a heavy regulatory structure. Our government has been focused on ease of doing business and less regulation, but more effective regulation,” said Amit Khare, secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, earlier this year.
The move by the world’s second largest internet market is bound to make players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney’s Hotstar, Times Internet’s MX Player and dozens of other streaming services and web-based news outlets more cautious about what all they choose to stream and publish on their platforms, an executive with one of the top streaming services told TechCrunch, requesting anonymity.
Netflix, which has poured over half a billion dollars in its India business, declined to comment.
"Unacceptable. Viewers and creators have to band together and challenge censorship in any and every manner!" tweeted Karan Anshuman, an Indian film actor, producer and director. "Whatever happened to the understanding with Mr Javadekar (the I&B minister) that OTT will be self-regulated? The govt is giving in to the basest demands of prudes. How is this progress in any manner? Don't like it, don't watch it. Don't impose your regressive views on a billion people."
Digital news outlets and platforms that cover "current affairs" -- potentially including Facebook and Twitter -- will now also be overseen by India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Over the years, the Indian government has pressured advertisers and indulged in other practices to shape what several news channels show to their audiences. The government is expected to offer more clarification on this week's announcement tomorrow.
Nikhil Pahwa, publisher of MediaNama (an Indian outlet that focuses on policy), has a thread on Twitter where he further explains how the Indian government reached this week's decision and its potential implications.