Indian censorship in danger of boiling over as OTT leaders unite

Something strange is brewing in India. You may have seen reports surfacing from Asia Pacific this week concerning a number of OTT video service providers coming together to sign a self-regulated content agreement – essentially a private censorship reform for which the group are now seeking government endorsement. Should a similar state of affairs occur in North America or Europe, there would be widespread outrage.

Indeed, the US has the unraveling of net neutrality while Europe has the controversial censorship reform Article 13, but neither threaten to apply the firm hand of restriction so heavily at the content level. Specifically, the Indian initiative outlines “best practice” for providers of OTT-delivered content, pertaining to the censorship of any religious blasphemy, promotion of terrorism, disrespect of the national flag, and any inappropriate scenes involving minors.

Censoring every one of these is of course fair game and something which should be widely encouraged, so should therefore not incite much outcry, although a few anti-censorship advocacy groups have criticized the move, presumably on the premise that this is the tip of the iceberg – and we are inclined to agree. A future, more stringent, streaming market could obstruct the potential for many OTT players to prosper in the booming Indian market.

The China-esque content censorship agreement has drawn signatures from nine prominent services in total so far – Netflix, Hotstar, Sony Picture Networks, Eros Now, Viacom18, Zee5, ALT Balaji, Arre, and Jio Digital Life.

The new rules note that companies will have to acknowledge receipt of a complaint within three working days and reply to the complainant within ten working days. We wonder if such a lax response time would still be the case should a social media firm join up? That said, notable absentees from the initiative include Amazon, Facebook and YouTube, yet the issue for user-driven content sharing platforms like Facebook and YouTube, is that presumably they would have to implement an arduous and expensive pre-upload barrier, checked by both software and human sieves, to replace the existing notice-and-takedown systems – as they may be forced to do in Europe.

Of course, the spread of fake news in India has infamously resulted in some atrocious acts of violence involving the targeting of innocent people. So, of course, something must be done – but the social media and fake news epidemic is not all what this week’s censorship effort is all about.

One displeased advocacy group is the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which said in a statement, “We reasonably apprehend that a model of television censorship is being incorrectly imported to the online video streaming space, which will increase censorship, impact innovation, and fulfil no clear policy goals. To have such a measure discussed privately among a handful of existing video players and then seek endorsement from government ministries is incredibly troubling.”

Services signed up to the new code of conduct will also have to outline a categorization system for general or universal viewing, viewing under parental guidance, and must flag content deemed unsuitable for minors.

With India being so heavily populated and diverse in culture, religion and beliefs, stricter online censorship will give rise to all manner of uncertainties and gray areas. Chinese censorship, for example, has shown that it’s fine to show extreme violence to 9 year-olds, but it is not fine to examine any political dimension in movies at all, so this can be very confusing.

If we take Article 13 as an example, this particular piece of legislation aims to arm publishers with legal tools for online copyright claims in the same manner as used in offline content in the broadcast, movie and music businesses, spelling bad news for Google and Facebook who would be required to prevent users uploading copyrighted content onto their platforms.

The reform will help control content scraping and, as a result, we suspect help stamp out fake news in the process, although the European Parliament has not specified if the recent events stemming from fake news contributed to reform votes.

Google, among other US internet titans and anti-copyright campaigners, has slammed the decision, claiming violations against free speech and also wrongly suggesting it will prevent social media and content platform users from sharing links, which is not the case. Specifically, Google is arguing against Article 13 which means it must block copyrighted content, while Article 11 means any content such as news which does appear on platforms like Facebook, means a fee must be paid by the platform owner to the original content publisher.

However, Article 13, which is part of the EU Copyright Directive, has struggled to get the green light despite it looking a done deal last year, with reports emerging this week that discussions had stalled due to the copyright reform’s increasing public presence.

“Keeping up the pressure in the coming weeks will be more important than ever to make sure that the most dangerous elements of the new copyright proposal will be rejected,” said German MEP Julia Reda.

We fear the rise of censorship of OTT video services in India will open up several new cans of worms over the coming years, resulting in an almighty mess which will inevitably harm budding start-ups in the sector more than most.