Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Nov 28, 2019
Information democratisation - streamlining content guidelines for OTT and DTH

As new geographies emerge online and rich and fresh content is unleashed across a diversity of platforms, it is clear that we are moving towards an era of information and entertainment democratisation. While regulatory authorities like the Central Board of Film Certification still struggle to maintain their control over mass produced cinema content, the content dispersed by Over The Top (OTT) platforms has heralded a new age of content democratisation for both information producers and the consumers. According to a survey, 55% of Indians prefer OTT platforms, while  41% still prefer the Direct to Home services (DTH). Millennials are increasingly choosing online content over television, as it offers more flexibility in terms of geographies, languages and genres. Moreover, viewers are no longer interested in content that is vetted by “majority sentiments”, “censored by authoritative handful.” It is quite clear that they are seeking complete freedom of choice.

This structural shift and freedom in both content production and consumption is a welcome change. However, off late, this freedom has also raised questions around terms like “mature audiences” and “appropriate content”. Internet positivists have always argued in favour of the “right to informed choice” for a “mature audience.” However, the questions of what constitutes the making of this “informed choice” and “mature audience” concern many internet critics.

The debate on the universal regulation of content versus the creation of a special class of unregulated OTT platforms began in 2008, with a Public Interest Litigation filed by The Justice for Rights Foundation. It requested courts to lay down guidelines for content displayed on online platforms. The IAMAI, along with the OTT, resisted such recommendations and came up with self-regulation guidelines instead. It was recommended that these guidelines facilitate the adoption of best practices, have built-in parental controls, and detailed labels for age-appropriateness. Since these recommendations were backed by  MeITY, the old petition to regulate OTT platforms was dismissed. However, a recent twist to the struggle has been The Supreme Court issuing notice to the centre for regulating content featured on OTT platforms. This has again ignited the debate and proponents are arguing for streamlined guidelines for both DTH and OTT, rather than giving OTT platforms any special advantage or immunities.

There are three questions that need to be addressed here:

1) Whether a universal content certification for all platforms is a better option than keeping different content regulation parameters for DTH and OTT platforms

2) If certification is the answer, how do we keep it away from the vagaries of politics? Currently under the Cinematograph act, the only qualification present for those on the Advisory Panel is that they need to be persons who the Union government thinks are qualified to judge the effect of films in the public. What is the criteria of “suitable members” has forever been in controversy. Therefore, the question of how certification can be kept away from the inconsistiencies of politics must be addressed.

3) If certification is not the answer, should content be left at the mercy of a “mature audience”?

The Shyam Benegal Committee had recommended “certification” as a way forward for cinema, instead of a state-run organization imposing censorship. In 2016, this garnered public interest for some time, especially after the “Udta Punjab” movie controversy, which alleged that the movie put “Punjab in a bad light” by glorifying drug addiction. This example shows how we already moving towards a “certifying” versus a “censorship” regime.

In 2016, along with other colleagues at the Takshashila Institution, I co-authored the paper- “Privatising Film Certification: Towards a Modern Film Rating Regime” where we argued for a privatized certification process. This was to be determined by way of market forces, and by organizations called Independent Certifying Authorities (ICAs). The ICAs will “license movies as per the age appropriateness of content”. Multiple ICAs will ensure that a producer has the option of approaching different private boards. This will remove subjectivity from the process as a producer can switch from one board to another if unsatisfied. This choice is clearly missing in a state run censorship body.  It is also suggested that a quasi-judicial appellate body be formed, which can be approached if there are any objections to the certificates granted by these private boards. The standard to check objectionability should be if its violates an already existing law and if so, whether the content in question can be removed.  A fee must be levied to the filing of appeals to deter frivolous lawsuits. The idea behind such structure is to enable a marketplace of competing ideas, to remove subjectivity from the process and to expand the freedom of filmmakers. It is important to challenge the hegemony of state-run organizations and their power to decide and dictate the content for the whole country. Most artists and content producers have expressed discontent over the fact that a “handful of members” get to decide “appropriate content” based on the authority granted by the Cinematograph Act in 1952.

The second challenge is to ensure that the selection of members is not politically influenced. The Khosla Committee’s report pointed out that the present CBFC board was not independent from governmental control. In 2015, Leela Samson, an acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer and former chairperson of Central Board of Film Certification,  accused The Information and Broadcast Ministry of “interference and coercion.” Samson then resigned from this post, which snowballed and led to resignation by many members. Pahlaj Nihalani was then appointed as the Chairman of the Board. Thus, apart from controversies in appointment, any decision of the Board can be set aside by an order from the Union government. If certification is the way ahead, it is paramount that CBFC be detached from the whims of politics and of the legislature. Hence, a private certifying body could be the best way forward.

While there is no question that content on liberal platforms might be replete with obscenity, offensive language, and nudity, regulating it for the viewers is akin to questioning the audience’s intelligence. In fact, the entire model of censorship is an example of the “paternalistic” attitude the state has towards its citizens. Perhaps the state doesn’t consider its citizens mature enough to decide for themselves, or mature enough for democratisation of content. Censorship doesn’t just affect the content we consume, but also affects the definition of dominant culture and art. Public culture should evolve and shape public opinion. It should not function as a dictation of the state.

To conclude and reinfore my point, I would like to raise the example of the hugely poppular TV show Sacred Games. This production wouldn’t have won the Emmy nominations if the censorship scissors worked their way up. Instead, the “abusive language”, “nudity”, “prostitution”, “drugs” and “political pot-shots” which the famous series was abound with would have prevented it from realizing its full potential.

It is ironic that the state considers its citizens mature enough to vote and drive (at 18), marry (at 21) and in the same breath, advocates for censorship of cinematic content. Art, unlike science, is open to both context and subjectivity. Perhaps, it is time to establish a “Cinema Loktrantra” in the true sense.

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