How to Regulate India’s Amazons and Netflixes

November 12, 2019

India has recently seen a massive growth in video streaming services, but this came in a regulatory vacuum. Self-regulation by the industry alone, without the interference of the government, would be the right approach, a new CMDS policy paper argues.

Over-the-top (OTT) media services, streaming directly to viewers over the internet, revolutionized the television-watching experience. The demand for these services, which combine the passive consumption mode of television and the consumer choice made possible by the web, is massive.

Over the last six years, the overall media consumption in India has been growing at an annual rate of 9%, one of the highest in the world. People in India watch 190 minutes of video content a day on different platforms. India has also seen a surge in OTT platforms: the OTT market in the country is supposed to grow to $218m by 2020.

But this growth also raises the question of content regulation, according to How to Regulate OTT Streaming Services in India, a policy paper published today by the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS).

In India, content regulation has always been shaped by shifts in technology and three key players: the government, courts and the industry. “The regulation of content in India from the rise of the cinema to today’s on-demand media has been characterized by a paternalistic state and a disconnect between policy and technology, with policies badly lagging behind the technology,” Shubhangi Heda, the paper’s author wrote.

The issue of content regulation has always been important in India, due to the country’s diverse population in terms of religion, economic status, caste and language. Still, the country does not have any guidelines or policies for content regulation on OTT services. As a consequence, the same content might be censored in cinemas and on television, but not on streaming platforms. This regulatory vacuum has already led to complaints in court.

Government in India has been known for its attempts in the past to censor content on grounds of public morality, communal harmony or the need to protect history, among various reasons,” Ms Heda wrote. Today, the industry is pushing back, lobbying for self-regulation. Nevertheless, because of regulatory traditions, a model combining state censorship and self-regulation is more likely to be accepted, and it will be the government who will ultimately formulate the regulations.

But, Ms Heda argues, both the government and the industry need to adopt a freedom-oriented regulatory approach. “Therefore, self-regulation by the industry alone, without the interference of the government, seems to be the right approach to OTT regulation in India: it gives the industry a chance to grow and empowers consumers while protecting the internet as a medium from political scrutiny and ensuring freedom of expression,” the paper concludes.