The OTT Regulation Saga Gets Murkier 

Regulating the fast growing OTT platforms has hit a discordant note again with TRAI and the government speaking in different voices

The saga of regulating the vastly popular OTT platforms just hit another discordant note where TRAI felt that a separate set of regulatory provisions are needed for this innovative business while a central minister held the view that self-regulation continued to be the best bet. 


A report published by the ET quoted an unnamed official of TRAI to suggest that the regulator has convened a meeting next week to take a final call on whether regulation of the OTTs had to be taken up separately or as part of the consultation process around the entire telecom arena. At the same time the publication quoted commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal as saying that industry should self-regulate content on OTT as they breach Indian standards. 


The internal view within the TRAI is that the broadcasting OTTs need to be taken up separately and a consultation paper towards this idea would be released in January, though the discussions would broadly cover brands such as Amazon and Netflix. Thereafter, TRAI could take up communication apps such as WhatsApp, Facetime and Signal. 


However, minister Piyush Goyal told a CII meeting that self-regulation within the media and entertainment industry was a must, claiming that some of the content broadcast via the OTT platforms were certainly beyond what are the ordinarily acceptable standards within the Indian cultural landscape, another report in ET said. 


TRAI plays the referee in a bigger battle

On its part, the telecom regulator holds the view that the matter is broader and more complex to necessitate a proper consultation before creating any kind of regulatory mechanism. The idea of treating broadcasters and communication OTTs  separately also merits consideration, given that two of the OTT players fall into the domain of two separate government departments. 


While WhatsApp and Signal fall under the purview of the Department of Telecommunications, others peddling entertainment content such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney Hotstar etc. fall under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The two ministries aren’t seeing eye to eye on the matter either, with the latter assuming exclusive jurisdiction over OTTs. 


This being the case, the immediate question is how can a regulator governing telecom decide on the regulations or the absence of it? On its part, the DoT wants to regulate only the instant messaging apps with telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw stating that the OTTs come into their purview only insofar as consumer protection matters.


However, according to earlier media reports, the DoT had sought a mechanism whereby it had the powers to ban apps considered to be spreading misinformation, albeit only to safeguard data security and protection of consumer privacy. This issue raised the hackles of industry associations such as Nasscom and IAMAI who say the apps are already under the IT Act. 


Now minister Goyal has fuelled the flames by suggesting that civil society would demand that the government regulate the content on the OTTs as well. Does this mean a larger role for the censor board over the content? If so, how do they propose to regulate a medium where global releases have become the norm? 


From the looks of it, the government departments themselves appear to be confused about who should regulate what, not whether regulation itself is essential in a medium where it is not only tough to implement, but almost impossible to regulate. 

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