The first thing that came to mind when I heard OTT platforms are to be regulated by the GOI was TikTok. We all saw what went down on a social media platform that was freely accessible with zero regulations and it was nothing short of disastrous. On a range of juvenile videos that glorify rape to serious animal cruelty videos, a large part of the young population fell prey to the illusion of instant gratification through TikTok. When the app was taken down by the government, it was met with mixed reactions but the reasonable ones could easily accept that the move was long due.
The extension of governmental control over OTT platforms, however, perhaps isn’t very similar to social media regulations. While social media platforms including YouTube require monitoring owing to the open access they provide to netizens to upload anything they deem fit, OTT platforms are not the same. For a content to make its way to an OTT platform, it passes layers of censorship filters both legally and creatively, and is then given space on an OTT portal. Imposing yet another layer of regulations over these contents can in fact pose a challenge to the quality of movies and web series we have been binging for a while now.
Before we call it outrageous, however, it is to be accepted that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has every right to monitor and regulate the contents circulated within the country and this is nothing unconstitutional. However, there is no specific law/article that governs OTT platforms (or any digital platforms for that matter) as of now. All OTT platforms function under the domain of the IT Act of 2000 which does not speak of contents disseminated as such. There hasn’t been an independent regulatory body for digital media content platforms, and the I&B Ministry is now expanding itself to encompass OTT platforms and digital news bodies. This can mean that certain rules can be laid out for content creators to be aware of and OTT platforms to censor. The rules have not been laid down yet, but considering the kind of directive principles laid down for print journalism, we can guess what they would be.
There is no need to present case studies to understand that non-regulation of digital portals of all kind has been problematic on many levels in the past. Fake news, misinformation, derogatory trolling, provocative content, uncensored content have been the few issues that we can lay our fingers upon. While it is practically impossible for government regulations to completely sort all the mentioned issues rampant on digital portals, instillation of some surface level regulations might reduce cyber issues by a small percentage.
What does this judgement and recommendation by TRAI to impose regulations on OTT platforms entail for us? It is to be noted that the recommendation by TRAI speaks mainly of OTT communication platforms rather than OTT streaming platforms. To put it simply, the key concern behind the government extending its protective cover over these platforms is the same as the reason behind banning TikTok – privacy and security. Most OTT platforms functioning in India are owned by foreign countries. State intervention in the act of processing and storing of data gathered from Indian audiences is a need of the hour.
As for the content portals – they are not spared the intervention. News and entertainment platforms are encompassed by the new recommendation as well, which means that the contents shall henceforth be monitored by a government appointed body which shall regulate the circulation of ‘obscene materials’. What counts as obscene and inappropriate, I&B Ministry is yet to clarify.
What we can gather from this development is that the government is no more turning a blind eye towards the contents disseminated on online platforms. Laws related to journalism and entertainment media have been rather vague in the country, more specifically so for digital portals. If this recommendation by TRAI and herald a concrete set of regulations for all kinds of digital platforms, it can mean a control on content that is intends anything other than news and entertainment. On the other end, it can also mean undue governmental control.