In the last few months, streaming services have been responding to a push by the government and right-wing groups for regulation by equivocating. That equivocation has come in many forms: a code to set some baseline norms that prevent terrorist content and insults to state symbols, among other things; lip service to parental controls on streaming platforms; and a Digital Content Complaints Committee, pushed by some companies, to deal with complaints and penalise OTT platforms. Of course, the issue has never been that kids will see some nudity on-screen — push for regulation is heavily political. And Railways Minister Piyush Goyal made that clear on Saturday, in remarks during FICCI e-FRAMES 2020 first reported by Mint.

“I certainly don’t want my child growing up to be exposed to some of the stuff that I see on a lot of channels and a lot of international transmissions that come into our homes,” Goyal said, referring to OTT platforms. “[There is a] lot of very poor portrayal of India and Indian society that is reflected.” Citing content that featured drugs, Goyal said that there are challenges in “allow[ing] global content to resonate indiscriminately” in India.

It’s the culture, stupid

Goyal makes the anxieties of the conservative right with OTT platforms crystal clear: it is not (just) about how content is depicted on screen, but about the themes that storytellers, both Indian and international, choose to explore. The guardrails the OTT industry is proposing don’t even remotely satisfy such concerns. We have argued how streaming services risk a slippery slope that leads to self-regulation by setting up the Digital Content Complaints Committee. But Goyal’s remarks prove something deeper: avoiding a situation where the government tries to regulate OTT platforms is impossible. When another Paatal Lok or Sacred Games comes along, a cultural flashpoint is all that is needed to inflame the required minds inside the government to say enough is enough.

Streaming services — especially streaming services that do not place enormous restrictions on creators — should stand up for their creators by fighting regulation in court. To be fair, this is already happening; Netflix has swatted away enough frivolous suits from busybodies wanting to force the government to regulate streaming platforms. But these victories and fights need to become focused and durable in a way that protects the last frontier of what comes closest to unrestricted creative expression in India. And these decisive protections will not come from a defensive stance whose main philosophy is to let sleeping dogs lie and hope for the best.

Piyush Goyal’s comments

Here’s a transcript of what Goyal said at FICCI e-FRAMES 2020 with respect to OTT regulation:

The conversation around censorship on OTT platforms: let me evade the conversation for today, but I’m happy to do it with you offline. And let’s discuss the pros and cons. But I certainly don’t want my child growing up to be exposed to some of the stuff that I see on a lot of channels and a lot of international transmissions that come into our homes. I do believe that there’s a lot of misinformation also. A lot of very poor portrayal of India as a country, and Indian society that is reflected. While we appreciate creative expression— For example, I was a vocal critic of a very famous artist. You may not like to hear this as the film industry, but if he paints my goddesses nude, I’m certainly not going to tolerate. That kind of creative independence or creative expression is not something we can be proud of as a nation.

I do believe that this is a subject that we can engage much deeper. Maybe other countries have had complete freedom to do and say what you want and show. But look at the levels of cultural depravity that is seen many other time. Look at what their children are going through. Look at their broken families.

Look at the kind of bad habits that children develop at a very young age in many parts of the world. And I still think not that India is totally isolated from these things, but that a large part of India, and many homes in India, have been able to maintain some sense of discipline and some good moral upbringing in our country. We still don’t have as many cases, at least in our villages and our country as a whole, in terms of percentages, as we see in other parts of the world, of children going totally haywire.

Maybe certain parts of the country have suffered seriously, and in that sense, when that is shown on your channel or on the film industry’s screen, that is appreciated by all of us — as a wake up call. But you can’t be glorifying, for example, drugs.

There are certain limits or challenges to allow global content to resonate indiscriminately and while I appreciate self-regulation, the industry is fighting cats and dogs, even while trying to settle all the copyright issues that come on there. […]

We have self-regulation in many areas which are going well, and there is self-regulation in many areas which collapsed. So there are certain professions that have done it very well, including some of the professional organisations, like Chartered Accountants. It’s a very well organised, transparent body. And then there are many professions — I won’t take any names — which disappointed the nation.

I would urge your industry to really stand up this challenge, show some mettle, and demonstrate that by self-regulation, the industry can and will provide some sanity and maintain high cultural and traditional ethos of the country, or moral values that our country is proud of. […]

How do you expect investments to flow into cinema halls, into multiplexes, if the new way of giving films is directly on OTT? It may sound very exciting in the short run — you may have gotten more money from OTT, I don’t know. But predatory pricing has never been good for any industry.