The government is ready to amend rules for over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms like Netflix, Prime Video, and Disney+ Hotstar to curb obscenity and profanity if the need arises, India’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting (I&B Ministry) Anurag Thakur said at a press conference on March 19, 2023.
“Abusive language in the name of creativity will not be tolerated. The government is serious about the complaints of increasing abusive and obscene content on OTT platforms. If there is a need to make any changes in the rules regarding this, the ministry is willing to consider that. These platforms were given freedom for creativity, not obscenity. Whatever necessary action needs to be taken on this, the government will not back down from it.” — I&B Minister Anurag Thakur
Why does this matter: If the government follows through on making stricter rules for OTT platforms, this will result in increased censorship of online content, raising questions on whether the government is interfering with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression. Notably, the government is already facing legal challenges in its attempt to control and censor OTT platforms through the IT Rules, 2021 (more on this below).
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A rise in complaints in recent days: “The process so far is that the producer has to resolve the received complaints at the first level. 90 to 92 % of the complaints are resolved by them by making necessary changes. The next level of complaint resolution is at the level of their association, where most of the complaints are resolved. At the last level, it comes to the level of the government, where the action is taken on the departmental committee level, according to the rules that are in place. But somewhere complaints have started increasing in the last few days and the department is taking it very seriously. If there is a need to make a change we are willing to consider it seriously,” Thakur elaborated.
IT Rules and OTT platforms: The I&B Ministry already exercised some control over OTT platforms through the IT Rules, 2021. As part of the Rules, OTT platforms must set up a three-level grievance redressal mechanism (as described in Thakur’s comments above) and follow the Code of Ethics prescribed in the Rules, among other things. The Code of Ethics, in fact, already lays out rules around content classification, acceptable content, etc. However, both these provisions have been stayed by multiple high courts in India following legal challenges. This effectively means OTT platforms are not required by law to have a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism or follow the Code of Ethics. Those who are following these provisions are doing so voluntarily.
Will the judiciary side with the government? Thakur’s comments come a few weeks after the Delhi High Court sharply criticised the web series College Romance for its obscenity and profanity. The Court commented that such content has the capacity to “corrupt” young minds who can access them on multiple platforms. Given this view, will the courts be more sympathetic to the government in case the latter decides to adopt a tougher stance on OTT platforms?
Existing rules are working fine, Thakur in January: Contrary to his comments on Sunday, Thakur in January this year had advocated for creative autonomy for OTT platforms. “Creativity should not be reined in, it should have autonomy. But it should not be too much that anything can be shown. We have kept adequate provisions and till date they are working fine,” Thakur said on January 15, Business Standard reported.
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