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This is how Modi govt’s new rules will regulate digital media and OTT content

The rules borrow heavily from the existing regulations and structure governing the television media, including content codes and grievance redressal structure. 

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New Delhi: A new set of rules notified by the Narendra Modi government Thursday mandates online media as well as OTT platforms to follow the existing content codes meant for television and print media, and to set up a grievance redressal structure that will look at any violation of the rules. 

The new rules — Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 — also empower the I&B secretary to direct blocking of public access to specific content in case of an emergency.  

The rules, which seek to regulate digital news media and video streaming platforms, borrow heavily from the existing regulations and the structure governing the television media, including the content codes and the grievance redressal structure. 

For instance, digital news platforms will have to follow the programme code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act and Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India, which broadly guide the content put out in television and print media.

Similarly, OTT platforms will not stream content, which is against the sovereignty and integrity of the country, endangers security of state, which is detrimental to India’s friendly relations with foreign countries, and content, which is likely to incite violence or disturb public order.

The platforms also have to take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context, and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices, or views of any racial or religious group, according to the rules.

The grievance redressal structure that they are mandated to set up will be a three-tier structure. 

The first tier will be a grievance redressal mechanism to be established by the platforms themselves. The second tier will be a self-regulatory body to be headed by a retired Supreme Court or high court judge or an eminent person. 

The third tier will be an ‘oversight mechanism’ by the government as part of which an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) will be set up — on the same lines as followed for the TV industry.

In the television industry, self-regulatory industry bodies such as the BCCC (Broadcasting Content Complaints Council) for non-news channels and the NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) take a call on complaints over violation of the programme code. 

An IMC decides on specific complaints over violation and can recommend varying actions, including taking the channel off air for a specific number of days.

The new rules, however, cast a shadow over the fate of the universal self-regulatory code, which was signed last year by 17 OTT majors.

The code was rejected by the government, but industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) had attempted to address the concerns by adopting an ‘Implementation Toolkit’.

ThePrint explains how this new content code for OTT platforms and digital media will help regulate their content and how the proposed grievance redressal structure will work.

Meanwhile, senior executives across multiple video streaming platforms told ThePrint the IAMAI will convene a meeting shortly to discuss the government’s rules and the way forward.

Also read: Road map soon for OTT players like Netflix, Zee 5 to help make content code ‘clearer’

3-tier redressal structure for digital news

With content guidelines for TV and print media already in place, the government decided against drafting a separate content code for digital news platforms.

According to the new rules, these existing codes will thus govern all online news content.

Any complaint regarding any violation with regard to the content published by the platforms will first be attempted to be addressed at the company level itself. 

The rules mandate every digital news company to set up a grievance redressal mechanism and appoint a ‘Grievance Officer’ based in India.

The organisations will have to ensure that this officer takes a decision on every grievance received by it within 15 days, and communicate the same to the complainant within the specified time.

If the complainant is not satisfied with the response of the company, the complaint can be escalated to an appellate tier, which would be a self-regulatory body.

The rules stated there may be one or more self-regulatory bodies. This body will be an independent body constituted by publishers or their associations.  

It also stated that the self-regulatory body will be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, or a high court, or an independent eminent person from the field of media, broadcasting, entertainment, child rights, human rights or similar other relevant fields.

The body — with a total of six members — will have to register itself with the I&B Ministry within 30 days of its constitution.

It will address grievances, which have not been resolved by the publisher within the specified period of 15 days. It will be empowered to issue warning, censuring, admonishing or reprimanding the publisher or ask the publisher to issue an apology, requiring the publisher to include a warning card or a disclaimer. 

In case of any content where this body is satisfied that there is a need for taking action to delete or modify the content to prevent incitement to the commission of a cognisable offence relating to public order, or others, it can refer such content to the ministry for consideration by the oversight mechanism for action.

The oversight mechanism will include an inter-ministerial committee formed by the government, and this will be the third and last tier of the grievance redressal structure.  

In case a publisher fails to comply with the guidance or advisories of the self-regulating body within the specified time, the latter is empowered to refer the matter to the oversight mechanism of the government within 15 days after the specified date. 

Under the third tier or the oversight mechanism, the ministry will also publish a charter for self-regulating bodies, including Code of Practices.

The self-regulatory body will hear grievances, refer unresolved complaints to the committee, issue appropriate guidance and advisories to publishers, and issue orders and directions to the publishers for maintenance and adherence to the Code of Ethics. 

The inter-ministerial committee can warn, censure, admonish or reprimand a publisher or such entity; or requiring an apology by such entity, delete or modify content to prevent incitement to the commission of a cognisable offence relating to public order or recommend action such as blocking a specific piece of content.

The I&B secretary will take a final call on the decision of the panel, based on which an authorised officer will direct the publisher to delete or modify or block the content concerned. 

The rules also empower the I&B secretary to decide to block public access to a specific content without giving the platform an opportunity of hearing, in case of an emergency.

Also read: For OTT platforms in India, Tandav blurs the line between self-regulation and censorship

How OTT platforms will be regulated?

The OTT platforms will be required to follow the basic laws of the land while streaming content. They will also have to set up the same three-tier grievance redressal mechanism like the digital media platforms. 

The self-regulatory bodies in case of online curated content can direct the publisher to reclassify ratings of relevant content, make appropriate modification in the content descriptor, age classification and access control measures, and edit synopsis of the relevant content. 

The rules mandate OTT platforms to classify their content into five age-based categories — U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult), and implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”. 

According to the rules, the platforms will have to put in place other access control mechanisms, prominently display the classification rating specific to each content or programme — together with a content descriptor informing the user about the nature of the content.

Both digital news media and OTTs operating in India will have to inform the I&B Ministry about the details of their entity, and also publish periodic compliance reports every month mentioning the  details of grievances received and action taken, the rules stated.

‘Necessary that the industry comes together’

A senior executive from one of the leading video streaming platforms told ThePrint the new rules are now binding on the platforms and, therefore, it is imperative that the industry works on setting up a self-regulatory body on the lines of the government’s recommendations to ensure that the IMC does not end up becoming the second-tier.

“If the government is not satisfied with the self-regulatory body set up by the industry, the IMC may fill the void. Hence, it is necessary that the industry comes together to set up this body immediately,” the executive said.

Another executive from another streaming platform said the platforms themselves delayed the formation of the self-regulatory code since all of them were not on the same page.

“This led to the creation of a void for the government to step in the sphere of online content regulation,” the executive added.

Also read: Upset we’re not being consulted, OTT platform body says about govt ‘plan’ to frame guidelines


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