Shailesh Kapoor
Guest Article

The OTT Censorship Scare: What’s In Store in 2021?

The ministry could stay away from content and limit its involvement to data security and privacy.

It’s not necessarily a good thing, but after being in a state of suspended “orphanage”, the OTT category finally has a “parent”. The Government of India has decided to put digital news apps and OTT platforms under the purview of the I&B ministry. This move was inevitable, given that the OTT category has been on the ascendancy over the last few years, and whether it needs a parent or not, it was going to get one anyway. The Government’s track record in interfering with the television industry has been consistent. In fact, it’s a surprise that this decision regarding OTT apps has come in as late as it has.

Shailesh Kapoor
Shailesh Kapoor

A typical issue with such notifications is the lack of clarity. There’s little information out on what the implications are. This has, obviously, led to widespread speculation. A large section of content creators is worried about “censorship” that they see as a natural follow-up to this order. While no one can predict exactly what may be in store, here’s my view on how the I&B ministry should use its new “role” responsibly.

What they should NOT do

Censorship is a disastrous direction to take for the OTT category. Internet is a global medium, and it’s definitely not a playground for moral policing. If the ministry comes out with censorship (called “certification” in India, but is censorship for all practical purposes) guidelines, it will open a can of worms so complex that it can throw the entire content-creation ecosystem into a tizzy. The complications are too many to list, but some of the evident ones are as follows.

Many platforms have International parentage and put up content for a global audience, and censoring content for India alone will be cumbersome for some and simply unfeasible for others. YouTube is a user-generated content platform, and the volume of videos put out on it is too large for any kind of pre-censorship to work anyway. Social media platforms also put up video content, and they fall into that grey area where they are technically “OTT”, but never described thus in Indian parlance (OTT is an Indian industry term anyway).

Since pre-censorship is unrealistic, the ministry may issue guidelines for platforms to self-censor their content. This is no less a concern, because such guidelines are bound to be ad hoc. We have seen how the list of what’s allowed and what’s not for films has been a function of who’s heading CBFC at that point in time. Unlike films, which have a short shelf-life theatrically, content on the Internet stays forever. What’s “obscene” one year can be deemed as “mature” the next year. The film industry has faced this subjectivity for far too long.

In any case, unlike TV and theatrical, digital video consumption is private and intimate, and co-viewing incidence is as low as less than 15%, and viewing across generations in the family is negligible at less than 5%. Deciding what adults can watch and what they cannot is akin to taking a social and moral position on content. That’s the job of content creators, not politicians and bureaucrats!

Now, one could argue that there may be some content that’s socially dangerous or irresponsible. Except select genres like child pornography or substance abuse, any other interpretation of words like “dangerous” and “irresponsible” are bound to be subjective, lending such guidelines to be used as political weapons over time. Our politicians have used the entertainment industry as a political currency for years, and giving them more outreach is not a good idea.

The recent banning of TikTok and then PUB G is a clear sign that apps, especially of foreign origins, are at the mercy of the powers that be, and that can create a scare palpable enough to slow down a category that’s only in a nascent stage now, with a huge potential for growth and job creation over the next few years.

The other concern, which has not been discussed enough so far, is whether the ministry will come up with guidelines on how the SVOD platforms should price themselves. If they indeed venture into this lane, it will be shocking interference into the free market principles under which all such categories, that do not have a larger social welfare idea at their heart, should operate. But then, TRAI’s interference in television is reason enough to suspect that similar meddling in OTT is quite possible, if not likely.

What they can do

The ministry can just stay away from content altogether, and limit its involvement to issues related to data security and privacy. If they have to go a step ahead, they could look at a more robust mechanism for fake news prevention. However, this aspect is fraught with confusion too, because fake news spreads more through social media and messenger apps than via branded digital news apps

Most apps have a strong content rating system, whereby they recommend the minimum age for any content piece, with descriptors like strong language, violence, nudity, etc. An advisory to follow a well-crafted rating system, based on recommendations of an industry committee, seems a fair thing to do, especially because some apps, mostly Indian, don’t give due attention to this area yet.

Anything more than these three areas is bound to cause turmoil. And no, it’s not about muting abuses in dialogue. It’s about the larger idea of which stories can be told and which ones are off limits. Let’s hope the spirit of the Internet is not forgotten when the learned minds at I&B sit down to deliberate on this topic!

(The author is the founder and CEO of Ormax Media.)