In its recommendations to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Media Ownership, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has steered clear of recommending any restrictions on media ownership online, while restricting its recommendations, regarding media ownership, paid news, Private Treaties, and M&A, to Print and Television only. The TRAI has said that at present “the Internet does not seem to be a relevant segment owing to low penetration, the existence of a multitude of sources for news and opinions on the medium, and a general lack of authenticity surrounding opinions shared on the web.”

The points made in the TRAI recommendations about the Internet:
1. Internet important for opinion formation, but views online not as trustworthy as TV or Print: 

“In India too, the media – press, radio, television and, now, the internet – has certainly played a significant role in the manner in which democracy has evolved over the years.”

The Internet “is an important platform for opinion formation because of the presence of numerous bloggers and social networking sites, where opinions are openly put forth, debated and discussed. However, people may not perceive viewpoints on blogs and social media to be as trustworthy, accurate or authentic as those of the press or television as the former only portray personal opinions and are not backed by adequately resourced news gathering platforms.”

2. No dominant news entity in the Internet: “There is no dominant news entity in the Internet segment, as any player in the news genre who so desires has a place on the internet.”

3. Not enough reach for news: “Though the Internet is gaining popularity, the number of Internet users is still very small and the consumers of news on Internet even smaller.”

“Findings of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS – Q4, 2012) show that out of all users of any media segment, a whopping 87.6% of them use the television, 53.55% subscribe to the press, 24.2% tune in to the radio, 12.7% go to the cinema and merely 6.8% of them use the Internet.”

4. On news websites and aggregators:

“Many news websites belong to those entities already present in the television and print mediums. This is a cause for concern as usually the same content generated on the other platforms are included on the website as well, thereby affecting plurality across segments. Online media also hosts many content aggregators who only put together content produced by other entities and thus cannot be directly controlled.

5. Media stakeholders argued that Internet and Mobile would make restrictions on traditional media meaningless:

“Opinions are divided on the inclusion of Internet as a relevant medium. While some stakeholders stress on the Internet’s growing importance as a medium for opinion formation, others dismiss it as merely a mode of distribution of content generated in other media segments, which allows the consumer to consume news at their own leisure, and thus, need not be considered as a separate segment. Some stakeholders are of the view that blogs and opinions debated and discussed on social networking sites contribute significantly to opinion formation in the Internet medium and this may be a more significant factor than the presence of players in the online print and television segments.”

“Arguments were also raised on the rapid growth of new media platforms like the Internet and the mobile. Restrictions only on the traditional media could be rendered meaningless if simultaneously nothing is done about these new media platforms. The Authority notes that while only twenty per cent of Indians have internet access, broadband subscription is only at five per cent. Hence, the vast majority of individuals still depends on the television and print for access to news and information.”

Finally

“Nevertheless, the impact of the new media platforms on plurality could be reviewed at a later stage when their penetration becomes deeper and usage substantial.”

Our Take

These are recommendations and not regulations, so it is eventually up to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to take a decision on whether it accepts the TRAI’s views on media ownership online. We would like to point out a few things:

1. The Internet has both Media and Communication: This dual nature of online communications makes it difficult to regulate the Internet: when is something “published” and when is it merely communicated online?

2. Adequate reach will be reached quicker than the TRAI expects: With increase in Mobile Internet consumption, access to the Internet is growing rapidly and the reach of online news will eventually supersede traditional forms of media. It’s a question of when, not if.

3. A case for deregulation: Is there a need to regulate? Would a blogger, who publishes his views on a personal blog have to register, if media online is indeed regulated? Wouldn’t the mere process of regulation or registration be seen as an attempt to curb free speech? When a blog can be set up in minutes (or less), such an attempt would be meaningless. Is a Tweet a publishing or merely a form of communication? Would a message to a whatsapp group be deemed publishing? These are realities that regulators are going to struggle with. If nothing else, the Internet makes a case for deregulation of media, rather than an attempt to regulate.

Note: We’ll be writing separately about the media ownership regulations pertaining to print and TV