Guilty, a new film on Netflix by Dharmatic Entertainment, Karan Johar’s content production arm for digital media, has opened to mixed reviews. While some rave about Kiara Advani’s acting skills, others are less charitable about the film’s poor writing and direction. Yet others have flagged the liberal—rather unnecessary—use of invectives. A quick chat with some viewers who are increasingly watching shows on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms highlighted another pain point. Many feel that simply classifying a film or a show by an age group doesn’t mean that the platform can absolve itself of all responsibilities for its content. There’s more accountability required, they feel, despite the platforms’ oft-repeated argument of OTT offering “pull” content, that is, something that you choose to watch, unlike television which “pushes” out content where you have little choice.
Such discussions put the spotlight back on the debate regarding self-regulation by video streaming platforms even as they expand. The industry needs to have some systems in place for content regulation as internet usage in India is growing. According to a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in collaboration with Nielsen Holdings, there are 461 million monthly active internet users in India as of 2019. This number is second only to China. Last year, a report by Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson said that India has the world’s highest data usage per smartphone at an average of 9.8GB per month. This will double to 18GB by 2024, fuelled by rich video content, it added. Although based on a small sample size, a recent YouGov survey said that Indian television viewers are moving online for content after channel prices increased last year after the new Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) tariff order was passed. As much as 48% of the respondents who were DTH subscribers, said they had migrated online for content and watched Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar after the Trai order.
A 2019 report by Boston Consulting Group said that digital video consumption has doubled in the last two years from 11 minutes per day to 24 minutes. It added that the growth will continue, led by India’s young demography and surge in smartphone adoption. Besides, video streaming platforms are investing heavily in content and offering affordable pricing and easy payment options to consumers to drive growth. This has led to increased engagement with online video platforms. Clearly, with its growing influence, arises the need to keep a check on quality of content. Of course, nobody is suggesting censorship. So, platforms need not rush to take off content that is critical of the current government or the prime minister—like Disney-owned Hotstar did when it removed an episode of John Oliver’s show. However, they need not peddle soft porn and gross violence in the name of creativity, either.
Earlier in March, information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar met representatives of several video streaming firms. He gave them a deadline of 100 days to come up with a code of conduct and a grievance redressal mechanism acceptable to all. Although he said that the government does not want to regulate or censor content, he highlighted the need for a body like the Advertising Standards Council of India or the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council to address complaints related to content on streaming platforms. He even suggested that the production houses could be a part of this body. Basically, the government is keen on a neutral body to look into complaints.
So, how hard can it be to create such a body? To be sure, last year, IAMAI did come up with a code for the online platforms prohibiting them from showing child pornography, acts of terrorism, and disrespect to national symbols. They had to mark shows on the basis of suitability for different age-groups and carry content descriptors. The code asked platforms to have dedicated persons or teams to receive and address consumer complaints. Only nine companies signed the code. This number further dwindled when a revised code was unveiled last month that stipulated setting of the Digital Content Complaints Council, an external body to take up the complaint if the complainant is not satisfied with the platform’s response. Currently, there are only five signatories. However, they are determined to roll out the self-regulatory code with a two-tier redressal system after the governing council meeting later this month. They are hoping that others will join gradually. Platform owners must understand that creative freedom and accountability go hand in hand.