For the first time, the government, under the ambit of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 , has brought in detailed guidelines for digital content on both digital media and Over The Top (OTT) platforms, while giving overriding powers to the government to step in.
The new rules were unveiled at a joint press conference by Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar.
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The new rules lay down a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism.
One will be at the level of each OTT provider. Each complaint will have to be addressed within 15 days. If the complaint is not satisfactorily addressed, then the complainant can scale it up to a self-regulatory body collectively established by the OTTs. This body will be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, a High Court, or an independent eminent person from the field of media, broadcasting, entertainment, child rights, human rights or other relevant fields. This self-regulatory body also has “censuring” powers in case of any incriminating content. The rules say, “In case of any content where it is satisfied that there is a need for taking action to delete or modify the content for preventing incitement to the commission of a cognizable offence relating to public order.”
To top this, at the third tier, the government has equipped itself with overriding powers in the form of “oversight mechanism”. An inter-ministerial committee will perform this function and it will largely have the same powers as the collective self regulatory body of the OTTs.
Over and above all this, the government has equipped itself with “emergency” powers. The rules state, “in case of emergency nature” the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may, “if he is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient and justifiable” give orders to block public access of any information. The rules state that he or she has to record the reason for doing so in writing and it will be an interim measure. Importantly, such orders can be released “without giving an opportunity of hearing” to the publishing platform.
Both Ministers also clarified that no new law has been framed. And the government already has power to step in in case of an emergency under the existing law.
Mr. Javadekar said that the structure has been created to facilitate “soft touch regulation”. There have been widespread concerns about digital content, especially on OTT platforms, Mr. Javadekar said, with 50 Parliament questions in the recently concluded first part of the Budget session dedicated to it.
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“The digital media platforms have no monitoring mechanism like TV News Media or the print media. Which is why the government felt that there must be a level playing field. All media platforms must have the same justice system,” Mr. Javadekar said. TV has to follow the code under the Cable Network Act, and print media is regulated by the Press Council of India.
He said that multiple meetings had been held with OTT platforms before the framing of these guidelines, including in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Two of these meetings, Mr. Javadekar said, were held in Delhi chaired by him. He said that despite the Ministry’s request, the OTT platforms had not come up with a satisfactory self-regulatory mechanism.
“There is a Censor Board for films, but OTT platforms have no such mechanism. For OTT platforms, we have decided on a 3-tier system,” Mr. Javadekar said. He added that both OTT and digital media would have to disclose details about themselves, their area of operation, the number of subscribers, and so on. “We are not mandating registration, we are seeking information,” he said.
OTT platforms will have to self-classify content into five age based categories — U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Platforms would be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”. The majority of OTT platforms currently follow this mechanism.
Publishers of news on digital media would be required to observe the ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ of the Press Council of India and the ‘Programme Code’ under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act. Setting out general principles, the rules say that publishers should take into consideration that the content does not “affect the sovereignty and integrity of India” or “jeopardises the security of the State”, among other things.