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How Will the New MIB Notification Affect Online Digital Media in India?

Editor, TRANSFIN
Nov 14, 2020 8:54 AM 4 min read
Editorial

The Government of India has issued a notification saying that all digital/online content be it through films, other audio-visual programmes, as well as news and current affairs would be brought under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). 

The popular reaction to this development has been mixed, with some applauding the element of regulatory inclusivity and level playing field brought in the media landscape by treating online at par with traditional broadcasting. Others however see it as signs of potential intrusion upon media freedom.

However we look at it, it is certain that a policy change of this nature would impact the marketability and regulation of digital media and online content in the country in a major way. 

Let's study those possible impacts, one by one. 

The Fundamentals 

In India, the media industry is regulated in many ways. Some, by statutory and specialised agencies (like PCI, NBSA or CBFC), some by an industry-appointed regulators (e.g. News Broadcasters Association) and some by self-regulating organisations (e.g. Advertising Standards Council of India). 

 

How Will the New MIB Notification Affect Online Digital Media in India?

 

However, digital media is as varied as a luminous spectrum. It includes online news, social media, streaming services, music, audio, gaming, advertising etc. So far, they were all unregulated. By unregulated, it means there were no laws or ordinances in place to certify and regularise their content.

 

Does This Mean There Were No Checks On Online Content Before?

Of course there were.

Even though they weren't strictly "censored", they were covered within the application of the Information and Technology Act, 2000, the grand-old umbrella legislation that governs everything in the online domain.

Then again, the IT Act is largely punitive in its regulation (aims to prevent violations like content theft, harassment, crimes, etc.). Censorship is a separate mandate that calls more towards content-abridgement rather than content-deterrence.

Hence, OTT platforms like Netflix, Hotstar, Prime Video etc. Which had a free run in broadcasting "edgy" and "bold" content that reaches audiences by bypassing CBFC's scrutiny, would now have to undergo review.

 

Previous Efforts At Regulation

With approximately 600 million internet users in the country, the issue of parity between traditional and online media sources took lift long ago. The Government brought together OTT services and other stakeholders to a common table to create an online content regulation committee (on the lines of the Broadcast Content Complaints Committee, a self-censorship agency for TV media) and formulate a code of conduct.

However, due to lack of consensus, that idea fell through.

(FYI: Even TRAI was tasked with drafting and liasioning a regulatory alliance between the OTT content providers but soon backed out.)

Meanwhile, some OTT platforms have been self-regulating via a Code of Best Practices under the Internet and Mobile Association of India. (Read here about the rise of OTT platforms in India.)

 

How Will the New MIB Notification Affect Online Digital Media in India?

 

What Will The Regulation Look Like?

The notification enforces MIB's jurisdiction over digital media content by adding the relevant subjects (films, A/V programmes, news and current affairs) in the Government of India (Allocation of Business Rules), 1961.

These rules are merely an administrative diktat which list the inclusion of subjects under the docket of a particular ministry of department. As of now, there are no additional details on the exact nature of Government supervision over digital media content.

(Fun Fact: The Allocation Rules on online media are supposed to fall under MEITY's ambit, not the MIB, seeing as they have more in common with IT rules under the compliance matrix.)

Although, judging by the Centre's resolve (MIB's comment on OTT platforms having no censor board), a combination of certification, censorship, licensing and content moderation are in order. The route of self-regulation is also likely, seeing as there has been some progress along that road in the past. Anyway, codification is inevitable.

 

What Are the Concerns?

First of all, streaming services differ significantly from electronic media in the way that the choice exercised in viewing a particular piece of content online is isolated for every single viewer. It is essentially private viewing. 

To regulate individual choices, the Government may start blue penciling content en masse, compromising civil liberties in the process.

Secondly, the sheer magnitude of digital content out there is way too much to control. Plus how do you differentiate different categories of content, such as between an individual's YouTube channel and that of a news organisation? Which takes precedence in the order of compliance?

Third, the IT Act restrains unlawful digital behaviour, not the uncensored. PLUS, in March 2020, the MIB acknowledged that the OTT platforms qualify under the "intermediary" definition of IT Act. So, doesn't it make sense to regulate them under the same Act instead?

Fourth, what are "current affairs" sources? In case it is meant to imply news dissemination platforms like social media websites, that opens a whole new can of worms. Sure, content moderation in social media can help regulate a host of issues (ranging from harassment to hate speech), but they trigger parallel conflicts on issues like surveillance, free-speech restrictions, data localisation etc. 

More details will come to the fore with release of the proposed framework. Until then, trust your iPhones, but tie your TV cables first!

FIN.

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