The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, announced on February 25, establish a soft-touch, progressive institutional mechanism with a level playing field featuring a code of ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal framework for digital news publishers and OTT platforms.
The latter would be required to self-classify their content into five age-based categories — U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). They 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”. 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, thereby providing a level playing field between the offline (print and television) and digital media.
However, some sceptics have described these rules as curbing freedom of expression and have even termed them as dictatorial. They seem to be looking for a black cat in a dark room where none exists.
Let us take the issue of content on OTT platforms. In fact, for the first time in independent India, there is a policy shift from pre-certification or censorship to a more transparent system of self-classification in five different age groups. Consider OTT classification in different countries: In Singapore, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), established under the Broadcasting Act, 1994, is the common media regulatory body for different media. The country has adopted a licencing model where service providers are required to obtain a licence for operation. A content code for OTT, video-on-demand and niche services is in effect from March 1, 2018, and provides, inter alia, for classification of content, parental lock and age verification, display of rating and content elements and specific provisions for news, current affairs and educational programmes. To aid parental guidance and allow for informed viewing choices, all content in Singapore must be rated according to the Film Classification Guidelines. The six ratings are G (general), PG (parental guidance), PG13 (parental guidance for children below 13 years), NC16 (no children below 16 years), M18 (mature 18, for persons of 18 years and above) and R21(restricted to persons of 21 years and above)
In Australia, online media is regulated through the Broadcasting Services Act, 1992, read together with the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015. For matters related to online safety (including digital media), the office of the eSafety Commissioner is the regulatory authority. The Broadcasting Services Act, 1992 has provisions for classification of content, restricted access to certain kinds of content, industry codes and industry standards, complaint mechanism, etc. However, in Australia, classifications are advisory categories. This means there are no legal restrictions regarding viewing and/or playing these categories — general (G), parental guidance (PG) and mature (M).
In the United Kingdom, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and the Communications Act, 2003 regulate the communications landscape. The UK Government released a white paper on the threats posed by unregulated online content. The paper has proposed a new independent regulator to ensure online safety; develop codes of practice, impose liabilities/fines on companies, and coordinate with law enforcement agencies.
Thus, self-classification of OTT content is accepted in many countries and there is no question of censorship being imposed on these platforms. The move is to shift to self-classification by creative people themselves.