Regulating OTT platforms and news content providers: How new government guidelines work

It would be in the best interest of the OTT platforms and online news platforms and their users to have an updated and robust legal mechanism for the redressal of their grievances

Mallika Noorani February 26, 2021 13:01:15 IST
Regulating OTT platforms and news content providers: How new government guidelines work

Representational image. ANI

The government, through the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), notified and published the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 on Thursday.

The sheer size of the audience of social media companies/digital platforms in India and the plethora of grievances reported over time mandated India to join the league of nations (including Singapore, Australia and Germany) seeking to provide for efficacious grievance redressal mechanisms by updating its existing legal framework and actively regulate such social media companies/digital platforms.

The official Twitter handle of PIB India contends that the rules empower ordinary users, embodying a mechanism for redressal and timely resolution of their grievance. Publishers of online curated content (read: OTT platforms) and publishers of news and current affairs content (read: Online news platforms) will now be administered by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The rules apply to not only such publishers which operate in the territory of India, but also publishers that conduct systematic business activity of making its content available in India targeted at the Indian users.

When deciding to feature any content, the publishers will tread a thin line and consider whether the content affects the sovereignty and integrity of India, or threatens, endangers, or jeopardises the security of the State, or is detrimental to India's friendly relations with foreign countries, or contravenes any laws in force in India.

All online curated content transmitted/published/exhibited by the publisher will now have to be classified as either with a “U” rating, or “U/A 7+” rating, or “U/A 13+” rating, or “U/A 16+” rating, or “A” rating, based on its context, theme, tone and impact, target audience and basis themes and messages, violence, nudity, sex, language; drug and substance abuse and horror. Publishers would also be required to implement access control mechanisms including parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”.

The publisher of online curated content will have to prominently display the classification rating specific to each content file or programme together with a content descriptor informing the user about the nature of the content and advising on viewer description (if applicable) at the beginning of every programme enabling the user to make an informed decision, prior to watching the programme.

Although not mandatory, the publishers of online curated content are expected to take reasonable efforts to provide such access services to persons with disabilities on their platforms which will improve the accessibility of online curated content to them.

The publishers of news and current affairs content will also be required to observe 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 traditional and digital media.

A three-tier regulatory framework is required to be formed under the rules where Level I will be a self-regulation by the applicable entity, Level II will be self-regulation by a registered body/association of the publishers and Level III will be an oversight mechanism by the Central government.

At Level I, the concerned publisher will have to establish a grievance redressal mechanism and appoint a Grievance Officer (GO) based in India; display the name and contact details of its GO and redressal mechanism prominently on its website or platform; become a member of a self-regulating body (Level II); and ensure that the GO takes a decision within 15 days of the receipt of any grievance and communicates it.

At Level II, independent bodies constituted by concerned publishers or their associations will have to be established. Each self-regulatory body shall be headed by either a retired judge of the Supreme Court or of a High Court or an independent eminent person from the field of media, broadcasting, entertainment, child rights, human rights and any other relevant field, along with not more than 6 other members who are experts from the fields given. Level II self-regulatory body will be responsible for overseeing the alignment and adherence by the publishers to the Code of Ethics and hear appeals filed by the complainant against the decision of the publisher’s GO at Level I.

At level III, the I&B Ministry under the oversight mechanism shall designate an officer (not below the rank of a Joint Secretary), as the Authorised Officer, who shall be authorised to issue directions for blocking for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored, or hosted in any computer resource. The Authorised Officer will chair an Inter-Departmental Committee consisting of representatives from the I&B ministry, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team and such other ministries and organisations, including domain experts, as may be deemed fit.

As a process, any person being aggrieved by the content, can register his grievance with the Level I GO, who shall generate and issue an acknowledgement of the grievance within 24 hours of its registration, address the grievance and inform the complainant of its decision within 15 days. If the GO fails to do so or if the complainant is not satisfied with the decision of the GO, the grievance shall be escalated, or an appeal can be preferred to the level II self-regulated body, who is required to resolve such grievance within 15 days. Appeal from the decision of the Level II body, can be filed with the Inter-Departmental Committee, within 15 days of such decision.

Earlier users were exposed to unnecessary hardships while seeking to address their complaints and OTT platforms (along with their content creators) had to endure arbitrary legal processes, being dragged through criminal proceedings often times in cities and towns far away from them. It appears that these rules aim to provide users as well as the OTT platforms/online news portals in India with an industry specific, specialised, time bound grievance redressal system.

Overall, it would be in the best interest of the OTT platforms and online news platforms and their users to have an updated and robust legal mechanism for the redressal of their grievances. As in all successful eco systems, all stakeholders will have to go the extra mile and put in the resources and efforts to put in place the machinery contemplated under the rules. Yes, there will be challenges but stakeholders must not lose sight of the end goal — a safe and successful future of the industry and its users.

The author is a partner at Parinam Law Associates, and specialises in media and entertainment laws

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