The self-regulation code that streaming services like Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, ZEE5, and Sony LIV recently signed, “is a self-regulation code, it’s not a policy document that the government has introduced,” Tarun Katial, ZEE5 CEO and head of the Digital Entertainment Committee at the Internet and Mobile Association of India said. “We’re in constant deliberation with both MIB and MEITY. They are well aware of the code,” he said.

Katial was responding to a question on whether the government supports this code, the third one IAMAI has come up in two years, drafted and signed at the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s encouragement. Seventeen streaming services and digital companies signed the code, which the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting reportedly refused to support now. A core group of four companies were behind the drafting of the code, Katial said, including Star.

We spoke to Katial about the deliberations behind the code, and the changes it has seen from a previous code that many streaming services opposed. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, conducted on September 11, before the I&B Ministry said it would not support the code. Also note that at this time, only 16 members had signed the code. The seventeenth one — Sony LIV — would sign a few days later.

MediaNama: This is the third code that IAMAI has come up with in two years. Can you explain why the code has been iterated so many times to be final? Is it final in the first place now? 

Tarun Katial: Self-regulation is an iterative process. The industry is very young and dynamic. It was essential for us to get as much consensus as possible. And I think the code went through its process. The first code was fairly widely accepted, but it needed more teeth for us to be able to secure the users’ expectations and to be able to make it more transparent for them, and also to be able to bring in third party partners or resources who would be able to guide us in situations that are unresolved.  

The second code didn’t find too much consensus, but this one has been signed by 16 members, and is now in its implementation and execution phase. I am very thankful for everyone who worked on it, the media, and everyone at large who has come together to make this a reality.

MediaNama: We have gone from the Digital Content Complaints Committee to a completely internal company-driven process. There was even a talk of an ombudsman process. So what changed? Why has that changed? 

Tarun Katial: What you just said was not correct.

MediaNama: The code has no mention of the word “ombudsman”.

Tarun Katial: The word “ombudsman” is not there, but the concept is. 

MediaNama: But doesn’t an ombudsman have a certain level of authority to overrule some people? The independent advisor as laid out in the code is sharing membership with at least two members from the streaming service itself.

Tarun Katial: Yes, the independent advisor shares [membership] with the OTT members, but he’s an independent advisor, whose advice is very important to us, for each of our players. So it’s not an internal thing. If it was an internal thing, we wouldn’t have an independent external advisor.

MediaNama: So even if the advisor’s opinion is not binding, you take it very seriously?

Tarun Katial: Yes. And it’s going to be a very senior person from the industry chosen with credibility.

MediaNama: Have any independent advisors been appointed yet?

Tarun Katial: Across platforms, people are in the process of choosing [independent advisors]. In the next 60 days, it will be validated and put up.

MediaNama: As an industry body, let’s say a member defaults on their obligations under the code, and says they won’t make these changes, and the same thing happens at the appellate level, and the complainant goes to the government. At this point, would the role of the Digital Entertainment Committee have ended, or is there anything you hope to do to avoid government intervention?

Tarun Katial: It’s an interesting question. I think our members are very responsible, to be able to understand user complaints and issues. This industry has demonstrated some very positive hopes to user complaints till today. I have great confidence in the fact that if both the internal committee and the external advisor give very clear advice to the platform, they will take it in the right kind of spirit, and make sure that they act on it. I think we are all responsible organisations, with a great history of protecting user interests, whether you take Zee, Sony, Star, Netflix, Amazon Prime. These are organisations built on customer-first values, and it’s our job to protect user interests, and that is why the entire code has been built on being able to segregate the content with age ratings. It has built two levels of remedies for user complaints. With segregation, with clarity on what the content contains, I have great faith that this will not need to go too much further.

MediaNama: On age ratings, what do you think about demands for political censorship? For example, when [Netflix’s] Leila came out, a lot of people took offence, and a lot of consumer complaints may have focused on the religious aspects of the show, and how it was objectionable— 

Tarun Katial: I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t comment on it. But that’s exactly why the two levels of internal committees are there. Even the external advisor, who comes in with years of experience, is a quasi— or, he’s an ombudsman, in our view — he will be able to tell us what his or her views are, and be able to balance user complaints and creativity. We are committed to both, to make sure that we are able to provide to the country and to the users as various entertainment platforms. Diverse stories, diverse points of view, but also enough user transparency and user security.

MediaNama: What apprehensions has Star had with this code before they signed on? Weren’t they the primary supporters of the DCCC code?

Tarun Katial: Star has had no apprehensions. Star was part of— we had a team of four that actually made the code together, and they played a very vital role in that. If you know more, you should ask them.

MediaNama: What alternatives did you consider to the system in the current code?

Tarun Katial: That’s an internal matter of the Digital Entertainment Committee. This is our final code, and I would want you to have this conversation around the final code. It’s not in my place to be able to disclose what is not to be disclosed.

MediaNama: On consensus-building, there were a lot of people— Amazon, for instance, who had problems with the DCCC code— 

Tarun Katial: The fact that 16 people signed on is what we should focus on. It’s not in my position to go into the deliberations of how this happened. But the outcome is very positive. It’s positive for the users, and creators and storytellers, and I would want to focus on the fact that so many of us have come together to balance those interests.

MediaNama: Between storytellers and users, there’s the other stakeholder looming large — the government, which has publicly been saying that they are a part of deliberations on self-regulation for streaming services. So is the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting happy with this code? Are they willing to sponsor it?

Tarun Katial: The MIB has encouraged us to come up with a self-regulation code, which we did. They gave us a time-bound roadmap to do that, which we did. We’ve submitted the code to them, and we’re in constant deliberation with both MIB and MEITY. They are well aware of the code. But it is a self-regulation code, it’s not a policy document that the government has introduced, and so it’s upon us to build something which has legs, which has teeth, and will serve users, and which will be implemented on a normal basis. We’ll also have to make sure that we have enough external third party advisors to give us good advice.

What follows are answers to supplementary questions that the IAMAI sent to us over email on September 15.

MediaNama: When the first code (2019) was created, there was an apprehension among civil society that there is no need for a code. And there were some content players including Amazon who chose to opt out. So what were Amazon’s apprehensions, and what convinced them to sign on?

IAMAI: At IAMAI, we had healthy debates and deliberations during the process of developing the Universal Self Regulation Code. It was very clear that all the companies shared the understanding that consumer empowerment and creative excellence were key to the long term success of the Indian entertainment industry. The companies who didn’t sign the code in 2019 recognised that we are united in a common goal to do what’s best for consumers and balance consumer choice and artistic expression. It’s been very encouraging to see so many leading companies come together. It’s also really exciting to see even more companies sign the code after our announcement earlier this month.

MediaNama: One aspect of the code is that the streaming services say they are regulated by the Ministry of IT. Can you explain then why the coordination has been with MIB?

IAMAI: On the Universal Self Regulation Code, IAMAI has been in touch with both the Ministries, MeitY and MIB.

MediaNama: Has the idea of a Digital Content Complaints Committee been junked?

IAMAI: Yes, the earlier codes are no longer valid. All the signatory companies are united in following the new code, which is effective from Aug 15, 2020.

MediaNama: Does Justice AP Shah have a role in the current arrangement that signatories have settled on?

IAMAI: The code is the result of discussions between the participating companies.

MediaNama: Why is there no longer a list of prohibited content in the present version of the code?

IAMAI: We believe consumers, creators and the industry are best served when there are a standard set of guidelines that companies agree on and comply with. The systems and processes in the code provide consumers with the tools to make the right choices and when needed seek redressal. We have empowered consumers with controls including age classification, content description and access controls to help viewers make informed decisions for themselves and their families. The code also allows creators to make content that best serves consumers and allows the Indian entertainment industry to thrive and grow. The signatories are responsible companies who want to do what’s best for consumers and the industry. As a reminder several laws apply to content across any format which includes OCC providers.

MediaNama: If the code says that streaming content is governed by the IT Act, which is overseen by the IT Ministry, how is it that the IAMAI’s outreach includes MIB when they don’t have jurisdiction?

IAMAI: On the Universal Self Regulation Code, IAMAI has been in touch with both the Ministries, MIB and MeitY.

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