In the wake of the Centre’s decision to bring online content providers and news portals under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, fears that this can portend censorship and regulations loom large. This is especially due to the dearth of clarity on what this decision entails. In an interview with BusinessLine, Apar Gupta, Executive Director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group, demystifies the order and its implications. Edited excerpts:
What do these new regulations mean for both OTT and digital news platforms, especially as there is a lot of confusion about what it actually implies?
There are no new regulations, that’s the first thing to understand. It’s essentially an administrative order which has been passed by the Government of India, designating the I&B Ministry as the nodal central ministry to look at two specific items of business ― OTT platforms and online news media. There is no inherent power with the I&B Ministry to either regulate OTT platforms or news websites which arises from this allocation of business. So essentially, what’s important for people to understand is, this may be a precursor to legislation or regulations which may follow thereafter. And there are some pending proposals with respect to this. There is also a degree of nervousness because of the pending proposals on the draft Registration of Press and Periodicals (RPP) Bill, 2019. The present proposed provisions under the RPP Bill would include and treat online journalistic entities in a similar manner to print. This would be supervised by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, However, at present, without this law passing through in future, little regulatory powers exist with it.
Would you say the fears of censorships that have kicked up are valid?
Yes, they are valid. At the same time, one needs to derive a sense of assessment on the basis of fact. So, it’s not as if there is immediate censorship which results from this specific action. However, the likely apprehension of it occurring in future does arise…There is a need for a greater level of transparency. If any policy measures are being devised, there’s a need for open public consultation.
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Right now, it’s an administrative order. But do you think there was a need for this particular change?
This allocation of business by itself, firstly, throws up a larger question ― should the government be in the business of regulating the media sector by itself, and what should be the ambit of that regulation? Traditionally, this role is being played in modern democracies through specialised regulators rather than by central government ministries.
It’s not like there shouldn’t be any regulation, but for the Central Ministry itself to do it directly, rather than by creating a regulator which may look at specific issues, it does throw up a challenge ― that will we be able to receive the same kind of media diversity which has been promoted by online journalism as well as entertainment platforms? And will this present classification result in a form of censorship which brings in a level of control which we have seen on television, radio and print?
That this is an extension of the regulations already facing other mediums like newspapers, TV and films is a counter-argument which has been put forward a lot…
Yes, but there are core distinctions in terms of the economics, the business models, how content is created, how it’s distributed and much more importantly, how it’s consumed ― where the content diversity is so large that people usually choose what they want to watch. Also, the consumption pattern is primarily over mobile devices where it’s incredibly private, thereby meaning that the social side impacts ― which we have seen, for instance, with cinema exhibition on contentious issues ― would not arise that dramatically. Moreover, it’s not as if that in the absence of regulation, there are no laws which apply to online media, both for entertainment and news. Remedies under libel and slander laws or defamation laws ― both civil and criminal exist ― hate speech offences, obscenity ― a whole range of offences under the Indian Penal Code and the IT Act exist. Also, if any of them are actually business establishments, they need to go through the same registrations of incorporation of an entity, as well as registrations with labour standards, environmental standards and tax registrations as any other entity which operates on a level of scale. So, I would say that the argument that these sectors are completely unregulated does not pass muster.
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What were the exemptions and freedom the online news portals had in the absence of being under the I&B Ministry, unlike, say, newspapers and broadcast? Basically, what will change now?
If we look at newspapers, for instance, the registrations which are necessary ― firstly, they’re necessary with respect to advertisements ― the government does have an advertisement policy. Now, the online space was fairly unregulated with respect to that. The second thing was that this kind of registration may bring in a form of standardisation… And also, who do you classify as journalists or not then? So, I think the level of flexibility which is available, and also the ability of the government then to influence reporting… (by) refusing registration, because you can not essentially operate if you don’t register or your registration is refused…So smaller, niche publications, as well as the lot of publications which exist outside India, will be impacted ― that’s the thinking around this.
Will it have a significant impact on content? Will this lead to a control on the content side?
With advertisements… to some degree, the government does traditionally exercise a level of control and there have been ongoing debates that it results in moderation of reporting… that risk is always there. Also, with respect to access, if you’re not registered, then you can’t attend a government press conference. So, it may, in some ways get impacted… I think, a lot of this will follow subsequently. And we don’t have a very clear sense (now). And, I think, a lot of the nervousness also arises because this is a sector which is in an early growth stage and is still discovering its business models; it’s not like everyone is profitable in online media…So, I do think that the degree of nervousness does arises from some basis, in fact. But at present, this notification is only an allocation of business for the internal conduct of marking certain subject matter within the Union or government.