Today the Cabinet Secretariat issued a notification under the business of allocation rules stating that digital and online media falls within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). The notification essentially means that MIB will have principal jurisdiction over, first online news and current affairs content and second films and audiovisual programmes made available by online content providers (also called OTT providers).
So the question arises what does this change mean? And second, why is there a level of apprehension that arises due to it?
What does it mean?
Here it is first important to take a step back and consider the role the MIB has played conventionally. It has administered both licensing and content censorship powers in the radio, cinema and television broadcasting specifically through laws such as the Cinematograph Act and the Cable Television Regulations Act. Hence, it has an institutional history of regulation.
This has been done both with respect to entities are permitted to operate within certain sectors of news and general entertainment but also indirectly exercised governance over content. For instance film certification which is popularly known as being done through censor boards. Now, the online content sector is also enveloped within the ambit of the MIB somewhat similarly to radio, cinema and television. However, there is largely an absence of legislation that may require either licensing or a form of content certification like for movies.
Why the nervousness?
We all know the internet is a very different medium than cinemas or theaters. It presents different challenges and opportunities. Here there exists a level of nervousness as to whether today’s notification can be a precursor to any form of licensing or result in censorship.
- Online journalism platforms: Here there is a level of anticipation firstly with respect to who all would fall within the ambit of such regulation and what would be its nature. We believe that online media and journalism is vital to our democracy and present innovative models through which specialised services focussing through models of subscriptions or news-letters provide incredible value to end users. Furthermore, even the type of content which may be investigative, or specialised focussing on topical subjects like technology and startups are serving real value and need. Here, there is a degree of nervousness about what shape any potential regulation or a legislation will take. One such measure is the pending process that considers amendments to the Press and Registration of Books Bill, 2019. Now, it’s an open question, whether this, or any other legislative measures, will cause censorship or bring in compliances that while aimed at checking social problems such as, “fake news” may just result in greater government control?
- Online video streaming platforms (such as Amazon Prime, Disney-Hotstar, Netflix): To be clear this would mark a clear departure from the past stand of principally the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) and joined by the MIB which had in the Justice for Rights Case made a submission that there was no need for regulation under the Cinematograph Act for prior licensing of content. Further, if any complaints arose against online streaming providers then offences under the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860 were available. We even sent a letter to MEITY congratulating them for this progressive stand. However, there are signs that such statements may not be equivocal and there may be a Cinematographer style regulation. According to us this would be a very bad idea for freedom of speech and media diversity. It would hurt creators, viewers and the cultural export and local content development of diverse content which is showcasing India’s creative, soft power on the global stage.
So in both instances, while nervousness is understandable, please do consider adoption of some caution and paying greater attention to any potential legislative or executive action which may follow. Such policy shifts will be documented by us and we will keep you regularly informed and seek your active participation.
Vigilance and continued liberty
At IFF we are committed to serving the constitutional values of free expression that quite often today intersect with digital communication. We believe that any regulation of the online sector which may follow should be grounded in sound public policy choices which carry these values and also serve innovation. Towards this we commit to remaining vigilant, working with associations, groups and bodies and a broad range of stakeholders including the government in good faith. We believe that the opportunities that the online space provides far outweigh the harms and will continue to take all actions to secure the interests of end users.
- Cabinet Secretariat Notification dated November 11, 2020 regarding the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (link)
- Submission to the consultation on the Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019 (link)
- Representation to the MIB against regulation of OTT streaming platforms dated September 06, 2019 (link)