Indian government on verge of backing OTT censorship

Nine months after Faultline ran the headline ‘Indian censorship in danger of boiling over as OTT leaders unite,’ the heat on OTT video players serving the Indian market has intensified as the government reportedly prepares to impose harsher content restrictions.

India’s pay TV and movie industries have long been monitored and censored closely by governing bodies, but the country has never applied similar rules to internet-delivered content. But why? Fear of backlash from US giants Netflix and Amazon, as well as the mobile network operators making money from delivering the vast majority of OTT content? Perhaps the government just hasn’t got around to rewriting the laws? Or rather a government wary of the hugely expensive and arduous process that a regulatory overhaul would entail?

Another factor is that these governing bodies have only very recently seen the penetration of OTT video in India as sufficient to warrant similar censorship laws as DTH platforms. The latest censorship reports were triggered by a government source leaking information to Reuters about a recent spate of complaints and court cases relating to content considered obscene or deemed to insult religious sentiment. A rise in complaints could eventually put more stringent laws into motion.

But the likes of Netflix, joined by local popular streaming outfits like Hotstar, have long prepared for such an eventuality. Back in January, a number of OTT video service providers came together to sign a self-regulated content agreement – essentially a private censorship reform for which the group had begun seeking government endorsement. This week’s reports strongly imply that the government has decided to endorse the censorship.

“The self-regulation isn’t the same for all, which is raising a concern – the directions are clear, we have to see how to address the problems,” a government official told Reuters.

The China-esque content censorship agreement from earlier this year 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 sign 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.

The Reuters source also noted that the Indian government is exploring alternative options such as a self-regulation code without government interference, or a regulatory code that is government-monitored and would require streaming platforms to obtain advance content approvals.

A future, more stringent streaming market could obstruct the potential for many OTT players to prosper in the booming Indian market.