Updated: Feb 20, 2022
Written by: Debapriya Dey
The 21st century is an information technology era or digital era. In contemporary times most of the work is based on the click of a computer or through internet services. Everything that we want to explore and understand is right at our fingertips. And given the pandemic that broke out in the year 2020, people started resorting to giving more of their time and attention to the internet world. And great work of keeping us all entertained sitting in the comfort of our homes was performed by OTT and other social media platforms. OTT platforms have created a substantially large viewership market in India for the last 5 to 6 years. The reason why OTT platforms have become so much popular in India is that they create and curate consumer-friendly content, catering to the requirements of viewers of all age groups. And until recent times, these streaming bodies were given complete freedom to stream their choice of the content without any interference from any regulatory agencies.
But these so-called freedoms of OTT platforms have often landed themselves into legal troubles and controversies because they self-regulate the nature of the content that they want to available through their services. The amount of self-regulation is however not quite strong and that’s why the Government of India, perhaps, decided to intervene in the matter.
On 25th February 2021, the Government of India under the ambit of The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, has introduced a set of guidelines to control the functioning of the digital media and OTT platforms in India. The rules have been framed under The Information Technology Act, 2000, and they supersede the 2011 guidelines for internet intermediaries. This set of rules gives the government an overruling power to step in matters of violations of laws. Through these new guidelines, the GOI aims to bring Social Media Intermediaries, Digital Media Houses, and OTT Platforms under its surveillance.
The social media intermediaries, in this regard, have been asked to do due diligence and provide with traceability of users and their identification. This means the breaking of end-to-end encryption policies formulated and followed by these significant social media intermediaries. Along with that, they are to set up grievance redressal committees. According to the new rules, news publishers on digital media shall be required to observe Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, which are the same rules that regulate the print and TV industry. Subsequent other impositions that have been introduced include the removing of news articles or blog posts upon the direction of the government. The OTT platforms with respect to the new rules will have to categorize and label their content on an age basis arrangement. Furthermore, they have to set up a grievance redressal system to decide on specific complaints about content. These grievance redressal systems will be of three-tier committee with an emphasis on self-regulation and little of “soft touch oversight” by the government. This means that as and when complaints shall be filed against web series like “Tandav” and “Leila”, which are infamous for spreading propaganda and demeaning religion in the name of content, the redressal team shall have to address the issues raised within 72 hours and resolve them within 15 days of receiving the complaints, at the latest. Addressing the audience in a joint conference, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister, Shri Prakash Javadekar, also said that the rationale behind this idea is solely to bring all kinds of news and media under the same regulatory compliance as that of the TV and print media. And “all media houses shall have the same justice system”, he added.
Where on one hand all these new rules may be perceived as tightening the noose around the neck of these social media and digital media platforms, however with regard to users, these rules are designed to empower them. In simpler terms, these new regulations have notched up the security concerns of the users on another level. People can complain and be heard as well if they feel their information is inappropriately shared over various internet platforms. And they can raise issues even when their content is unfairly blocked from any website. To which the compliance officers are obliged to answer and resolve the raised issues. Nonetheless, the users are also to bear in mind the nature of the content they are uploading on the internet cause that too would have legal implications.
Background for these striking changes:
The drafting of these IT rules began in 2018, but it wasn’t published until recently there flared up a scuffle between the Government of India and Twitter  over the removal of certain content in relation to the ongoing farmers protest. The government of India, for the last two years, has been on the outs with WhatsApp, which is a Facebook-owned venture, on the issue of traceability of the originator of a message on their platform. But WhatsApp has been constantly denying this request on grounds of privacy policies.
These rules have been formulated on the back of several controversies that are stirred up from time to time by the OTT platforms through their content. The government on many occasions has asked the social media intermediaries to take down defamatory statements or block handles that spread propaganda against the Union of India. Several lawsuits have also been brought against the digital media publishing companies. But every time, the government’s request or demands have been denied in the name of freedom of speech and expression. The Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, in the light of this matter, while speaking in a conference said, “ while press freedom is important, every freedom should be responsible freedom”.
OTT Guidelines in Foreign Countries:
The long and unending debate between data protection, security concerns, and freedom of free access to the internet is a matter not just limited to the territorial boundaries of India. Countries like the United Kingdom and Singapore have stricter OTT regulations. In Singapore the streaming bodies are bound by compliance to display tags such as “nudity”, “drugs”, “violence”, etc. Whilst, in the UK, these OTT platforms go through the same scrutiny as that of the broadcasters. A few other countries like Australia, Turkey, Kenya, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia have also come up with rules and regulations that directly govern these platforms or via provisions of other acts.
While censorship of movies is already making headlines in India for their bold stories and the tussle between the government and the creators that follow after. Some people may consider the new regulatory move of the executive to be an infringement of freedom of speech and expression and the government trying to play the super cop in the digital world. However, there are people who are in favour of the recently formulated rules. Taking into consideration the present scenario, we can say that an unbiased regulatory mechanism is the need of the hour. And it will be interesting to see how government copes with the requirements of its citizens. Will the stance taken be a rigid one or will it have a lenient approach in implementing these rules, is something to wait for and witness. Nevertheless, we as viewers need the joint cooperation of the government and these digital platforms to walk us towards a safer and healthier internet space for all.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 https://www.meity.gov.in/content/notification-dated-25th-february-2021-gsr-139e-information-technology-intermediary
The Information Technology Act, 2000 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Technology_Act,_2000
3 Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, 1995 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1776076/
scuffle between the Government of India and Twitter https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-asia-india-56007451
OTT Regulations in other countries of the world https://www.eversheds-sutherland.com/global/en/what/articles/index.page?ArticleID=en/tmt/Regulatory_Position_of_OTT