It was some time in 2014 when I was reporting on the Hot News case at the Delhi High Court that I received a call from the founder of another digital blog/publication. He had called to discuss the creation of an online publication association, because his publication had received a legal notice. For some reason, he felt that being regulated and a part of an association would provide him with better protection against harassment. The interest in forming an association for online publishers is not new.

What is surprising about traditional news publishers, including the Times of India, Hindustan Times, India Today, Indian Express, etc forming the Digital News Publishers Association, is that they didn’t need to. All of them are already a part of other media associations and groups, and if at all any protection is provided for publishers by associations, they clearly didn’t need it.

Not a single digital-only news publisher is a part of the founding group. Even though they say that they are open to others joining them, it seems as if they didn’t think it important enough to have at least a few on board. Perhaps the confusion might have been around which digital-only publications to invite, or maybe they’ve taken the same approach as COAI, where telecom operators are core members, and everyone else is an associate. In either case, the exclusion of digital-only publishers from a digital news publishers association is poor form from the founding team.

Why have they done this?

Even though the idea of forming an association is old, why have they done it now? This is probably an outcome of the now scrapped plan from Ministry of Information and Broadcasting looking at regulating online content, which included news publishers and aggregators. That consultation has now been parked with MEITY.

They publishers have said that their first task is to collaborate to address fake news. There are already discussions between various publishers for fact checking, and the sharing of those fact-checked reports across media and social media. It didn’t need to form an association to achieve this. In any case, collaboration around fact-checking is useful, but not sufficient. We need strengthening of law enforcement capabilities, especially in small towns, and capacity building for the judiciary, bureaucracy and law enforcement. We need the police to be more active once misinformation is spreading, using counter speech to address it.

Perhaps it’s about preventing formal regulation of online news. What appears to be happening in parallel in online entertainment, is a move to try and transpose traditional media norms to online norms, and create their own self-regulatory code and disclosure norms, in a means to distinguish themselves from content aggregators. Perhaps these traditional-digital publishers might attempt to do the same in the news domain, and create some self regulatory norms, in order to distinguish themselves from blogs and news aggregators.

If that does happen, it will make for interesting reading. There’s some confusion about what can be classified as news on the Internet, and whether aggregators and blogs are included, and about whether video will be regulated separately from text, given that the medium allows the mixing of audio, video, text and interactivity.

Every publication has its own norms and editorial practices, whether published or unpublished. I don’t see the need for uniformity and a common code just as yet. Establishing self-regulatory norms lays the groundwork for formal content regulation norms from the government, and suggests that our freedom of speech, which is restricted under Article 19(2) of the Indian constitution, is open to further control from the government.

The internet does not distinguish between journalists and non-journalists, publications and blogs. We are all users: both consumers and creators. Any move by any traditional industry to transpose and impose its norms and restrictions, to all of us on the Internet, should be opposed.

Such moves may end up restricting freedoms for users and are thus potentially regressive.