New Delhi: The fear of government regulation was supposed to bring online video streaming platforms together, but it has, instead, divided the nascent industry, with some top players such as Netflix and Zee5 opting out of a new self-regulatory body.
Last month, video-on-demand players Hotstar, Jio, SonyLIV, Voot and Eros signed up to form an independent adjudicatory council to resolve consumer complaints. These five companies account for over 70 per cent of the over-the-top (OTT) media market.
The new body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC), will be headed by a retired judge and will have representation from the government and the entertainment industry. It will function along the lines of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which are the self-regulatory entities for non-news television channels and advertisements respectively.
The digital council will look into complaints from consumers and the government that video-streaming platforms may not be able to address to the complainant’s satisfaction.
But at least half of the video streaming platforms have refused to be part of the new body, with the main grouse being that it is not fully representative of the industry.
Those that have stayed out include Netflix, Zee5, AltBalaji, MXPlayer and Arre.
A majority of these streaming companies had, however, signed a self-regulatory code last year, which prohibits streaming content disrespecting the national emblem or flag, promoting terrorism or outraging religious sentiments of any community. The code had a single-tier grievance redressal mechanism at the level of the companies themselves.
The failure to arrive at a consensus, despite multiple rounds of deliberations between the industry players themselves and with the government has sparked fears that it could prompt the government to step into the sphere of online content regulation.
Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Prakash Javadekar had last Monday met the heads of all the major video streaming platforms. According to sources, Javadekar told the stakeholders that the government would not ideally want to get involved in any kind of censorship or content regulation but emphasised that the industry should roll-out a self-regulatory mechanism by 15 June.
Sources added that Javadekar further said that the film industry had complained to him that while their content requires a CBFC certificate, the streaming industry does not follow even a self-regulatory code.
Since the meeting, Netflix, Zee5, AltBalaji, MXPlayer and Arre have written to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) — an industry lobby group that helped draft the code for the digital council — seeking a meeting.
ThePrint reached Hotstar and Netflix through emails but is yet to receive a response.
Tarun Katial, CEO, Zee5 India, said there was a need to seek collective views of all stakeholders.
“While we completely respect the step taken by various industry players to arrive at a common platform to address consumer grievances, a larger, mutually agreeable solve is pertinent and urgent need of the hour, after seeking collective views from all stakeholders operating within the video streaming business, including content creators and distribution platforms,” said Katial.
“We believe that for such mechanisms to be truly effective for the consumer, a substantial number of OTT services, both at a regional and national level, should be signatories to this process.”
The code for the council and what it says
The initial self-regulation code was signed by nine online video streaming platforms in January last year, including Hotstar and Netflix.
Amazon (Prime) and Google have stayed out of the process from the very beginning.
The code mandated signatories not to stream content banned by courts, or that disrespects the national emblem and flag, promotes terrorism or violence against the state, shows children in sexual acts or which “promotes and encourages disrespect to the sovereignty and integrity of India”.
This is different from self-censorship where abuse, nudity or politically sensitive content is voluntarily beeped out by the platforms.
Under the code, there would also be a classification of content, maturity ratings and parental or access control, so that viewers make an informed choice. The code was subsequently revised to include a two-tier grievance redressal mechanism for the platforms — the first tier was at their own level and the second at the industry level.
The first tier mandates the streaming platforms to set up a digital content complaints forum and resolve a consumer complaint within 30 days of receiving it.
According to the code, however, consumers can escalate complaints to the Tier 2 — the new digital council — if they are dissatisfied with the decision at Tier 1. The government could also forward a complaint to the council for a decision.
Grievance redressal body: The bone of contention
It is this Tier 2 that has become a bone of contention between the streaming platforms.
Those that have agreed to the self-regulatory mechanism argue that a void only creates room for the government to regulate online content that is currently free of any state censorship.
“As of today, online content is free of government interference, and we would ideally like to keep it that way. But a void in the self-regulation mechanism may just lead the government to step in. This is an avoidable situation,” an industry source from among the signatories to the DCCC said.
“The industry would be unnecessarily tangled into a web of litigation before it establishes itself.”
Another source said they believe that once the roll-out takes place, more OTT companies will join the initiative and a robust mechanism will be established without any government role.
“All the signatories are very clear that the Information and Broadcasting ministry does not have any power to regulate internet-based digital mediums as we are governed under the IT Act, the parent ministry for which is MEITY,” the second source said.
“We, however, understand that the ministry only engages with us so that a self-regulatory mechanism can address any content-related issues.”
Industry sources from among those who have chosen to stay away from the code, however, say that the first tier, which gives individual platforms a chance to resolve consumer complaints, is adequate.
“We felt the revised code was rushed through and not everybody had a chance to provide inputs. We wanted a self-regulatory structure that is more representative of the industry,” said a source from a streaming platform that is not part of the digital council.
Those opposing the council, however, say they are open to further discussions, which, they add, should ideally involve regional players and other stakeholders like content creators. There are around 35 video streaming platforms operating in the country, many of which are still in the evolving stage.
“There needs to be a wider consultation in the next meeting with IAMAI. We plan to discuss larger issues,” the source said. “It also needs to be deliberated if the DCCC should exist in its current structure, as it seems to be set up under government pressure because the platforms want to avoid litigation.”
However, those among the signatories say Netflix and others did not want the two-tier structure from the very beginning. “They also never clearly told the government that they are against the two-tier process,” one of the participants in the meeting said.
The demand to regulate online streamed content has grown louder, especially after popular shows such as Sacred Games and Leila on Netflix faced backlash from groups, which claim they depicted India in poor light.
While the government has publicly maintained it would not want to regulate the content, it has repeatedly emphasised on the need for some sort of self-regulation.
Sources in the Modi dispensation told ThePrint there is disagreement even within the government, with some sections defending self-regulation and others wanting the state to intervene more.
“There has to be some sort of regulation but the government favours a strong self-regulatory structure established by the platforms,” a senior government official said.
Javadekar reiterated this in his recent meeting with the platforms, making it amply clear that a grievance redressal industry body must be part of the self-regulatory structure along the lines of the BCCC and ASCI. Both bodies have representatives from the industry as well as the government.
Globally, however, streaming platforms are not entirely immune to government control.
According to Netflix’s Environmental Social Governance report, the streaming platform took down nine pieces of content on various governments’ demands since it began operations 23 years ago. The majority, five such requests, came from the Singapore government, which issued its most recent demand earlier this year involving The Last Hangover.
The platform had also pulled an episode of the comedy show, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which was critical of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. It had received a complaint from the kingdom.