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The Indian Government wants to censor streaming services and here’s why it’ll be a disastrous move

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Shivam Vahia
The rage has just begun!

According to a Mumbai Mirror report, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) has asked streaming services to create an adjudicatory body and finalise a code of conduct within the next 100 days. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar held a meeting with the top streaming services in India and instructed them to complete the job within the given timeline.

This isn’t the first time we’re hearing about censorship on online streaming platforms. Conventional mediums of communication like radio, broadcast television, and even movies have a set of guidelines to follow. Fortunately, India had modern laws to govern Internet-based mediums. Our country still governs this modern medium of communication-based on two-decade-old laws like the IT Act, 2002.

With no censorship law in place to monitor the Internet, over-the-top (OTT) services like Netflix, Prime Video, Hotstar, Sony LIV, Voot, and Jio have become a haven for liberal content.

Nudity, sex, crude violence, history, alternate history all are sensitive subjects and usually considered taboo in India. But these elements have been crucial for making masterpieces like Game of Thrones, Sacred Games, The Man in the High Castle, House of Cards, and many more. If censorship is applied to such forward-thinking content, we’ll be essentially killing an art form that has opened new content paradigms. More so, we may even open up avenues for rampant piracy.

Above all, the government at the centre cannot be trusted. The Mumbai Mirror report mentions that Javadekar cited the example of China where streaming sites have accepted a set of conditions that now govern their content. India is the world’s largest democracy. Should we look up to an authoritarian state like China where it’s illegal to speak up against the establishment?

Criticism and censorship go hand-in-hand:

  • The Modi government has a history of cracking down on anyone who doesn’t align with their beliefs. If they can’t initiate direct legal action, they’ll resort to tagging and name-calling. Terms like “anti-national”, “liberal”, “communist” are used to describe someone who doesn’t agree with the government. On multiple occasions, BJP party members have resorted to name-calling and branding people. It’s a form of passive aggression that helps establish a narrative by disrespecting criticism. They have been on the backs of Internet platform companies like Google and Facebook to censor content.
  • Similarly, Internet shutdowns have become a very common occurrence in the country. Slightest of unrest due to social or cultural issues and the state will ask all telcos to shut down services temporarily. 
  • That’s still a small session of downtime. India’s northernmost Union Territory Kashmir has been disconnected from the Internet for months. Telcos have been strictly asked to switch off services and discourage the use of VPNs. Above all, police have started arresting people for using a VPN and accessing the Internet. 
  • Just recently, Disney-owned streaming service Hotstar blocked an episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight because it featured fairly harsh criticism of the Indian Prime Minister. Do you know which other country is popular for these tactics? Saudi Arabia. Another host Hasan Minhaj was extremely vocal against the Crown Prince and the Kingdom forced Netflix to take down the episode in their country.

With back to back incidents like these, it’s hard to trust the administration. Today, they want to censor OTT platforms and make them safe. But, these same tools and regulations can be weaponized and unleashed against those who do not agree. Keep in mind, a democracy dies without opposition.

Why does the government want to censor online platforms?

  • In their defence, India’s OTT platforms do need some level of regulation. Platforms like AltBalaji are infamous for adult content and openly advertise their shows in public. We need to protect underage children from this exposure and control mechanisms can be arranged. This includes proper categorisation of content according to audience age, ensuring minors aren’t easily able to access this content and no direct marketing of sensitive material. However, the government could use this as a tool to gain more control over censorship.
  • IAMAI (Internet and Mobile Association of India) has created a Digital Content Complaints Council (DCCC) under the patronage of I&B ministry. It’s headed by AP Shah, a retired Delhi High Court chief justice. The council strength is yet to be decided and could range from five to nine, out of which just two will be representing OTT services. The services have no say in decision making or the passing of any new resolution because they’ll always remain a minority group.
  • At the beginning of 2019, a few of these OTT services voluntarily signed a self-regulated code of best practices under IAMAI. Major platforms, such as Netflix, Hotstar, Voot, Zee5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALTBalaji and Eros Now, have signed the code. Prime Video is the only major exception to have skipped. This was a step in the right direction.
  • But now, these companies will also have to comply with DCCC norms. While the DCCC defines certain parameters like ‘prohibited content’, ‘classification of content’, ‘age classifications/maturity ratings’, ‘Content descriptor’ and ‘parental or/and access control’ for OTT platforms, it also restricts content that promotes and encourages disrespect to the sovereignty and integrity of India.

At the end of the day, if radical censorship norms are brought in place, users will have no option but to rely on pirated means of content. Before the rise of streaming services in India, creators were taking a huge hit because of content availability via Torrents as well as the dark web. This will not only discourage makers but also reduce the government’s ability to control extreme content.

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