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No, there is no need for ‘consensus around self-regulation’ for streaming services

Mint’s March 12 piece on online content regulation is titled innocuously enough: “Need to build consensus on self-governance by OTTs”. But its contents are anything but. The piece’s author essentially wraps her argument around her distaste for the swearing in the Netflix film ‘Guilty’. Citing a “quick chat with some viewers who are increasingly watching shows on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms”, she makes the argument for the self-regulatory Digital Content Complaints Committee. The red flags are immediate.

She swats away the fundamental differences streaming video has with other forms of content distribution — that it is streamed on demand, and there is more often than not detailed information on age ratings and explicit content — without offering any reasons for such a heavy-handed approach, aside from the fact that the audience for such content is growing.

Let’s be clear — a self-regulatory committee to field complaints collectively is a bad idea. The one that is currently being proposed by some streaming services in the industry (while others resist) would give streaming services themselves little say in the outcome. Besides, we’ve seen how the Broadcast Content Complaints Committee’s mere existence has led to the kind of censorship on TV. “Basically, the government is keen on a neutral body to look into complaints,” the piece argues. Forgive me if I am not completely on board with a supposedly “neutral body” whose only logical predecessor has led to the current state of censorship on TV. Not to mention that a ministry that has admitted it doesn’t even have authority over the internet is giving streaming services a deadline to that end.

Every major streaming service comes with the kind of information that could help viewers and especially parents make critical choices on whether or not to watch a particular title. Maybe it’s time people start using that information before writing screeds on why a movie they didn’t like means that there should now be a layer of corporate bureaucracy as a deterrent, especially when there are so many broadly-worded laws with the power to censor already. Maybe self-regulation starts at home. Writing pieces ignoring the choice viewers have while goading the only creators with any level of freedom into self-censorship is dangerous and irresponsible.

A risky step back

1. There are enough laws: The provisions of the IT Act give the government a wide berth in getting content on streaming platforms removed. While this level of power in itself deserves to be questioned, a complaints committee would add another layer of bureaucracy to this process.

2. A committee would legitimise government desire to intervene: An unnecessary complaints committee has just one goal: reducing the likelihood of government intervention. This fact is not lost on authorities, who may feel empowered to step in when even this system doesn’t work out in their favour (as Smriti Irani did, by having a request to the supposedly independent BCCC to essentially take a show off the air approved in a matter of days). This makes the next point all the more pressing.

3. Censorship will be political: We have seen how a member of the would-be committee censored an episode of Last Week Tonight that did not violate any points of the self-regulation charter it is a party to. A committee’s presence would only entrench this behaviour, making politically charged content an unspoken no-no.

4. Self-regulation leads to chilling effects: Even making self-regulation a significant part of the debate gives it enough oxygen to generate the kind of caution that leads creators to abandon provocative ideas. The most trouble Netflix has gotten into in India has been not for their sexually explicit content, but for the searing political commentary in Leila and Sacred Games. Creating self-regulation apparati hurts the appetite to push the envelope for this kind of content.

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