Netflix Pushes for Self-Regulation of Content in India

Saif Ali Khan Netflix 'Sacred Games' - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

The global streaming giant joins Fox’s Hotstar service, Viacom's Voot, SonyLiv and other platforms in signing a "self-regulatory code" — a bid to avoid a potential censorship crackdown in the booming Indian market.

Netflix and rival streaming platforms in India, including Fox's Hotstar, SonyLiv, Viacom's Voot and several local services, have signed and agreed to follow a new industry code of conduct and self-regulation for online content in India.

Amazon, however, has no plans to sign up to the voluntary code, which covers sexual and religious topics, among others, and sets a process for consumer complaints. 

This marks the first time Netflix has signed on to this kind of code in a single country. It previously adopted a similar code for the Southeast Asia region. 

While theatrical film and television are heavily regulated in India, the country currently does not have any official guidelines for the streaming space. Last year, Netflix was hit with a lawsuit, still ongoing, over its first Indian original Sacred Games. One of India's political parties alleged the hit crime thriller disrespected the country's late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with an unflattering depiction. 

Indian streaming companies have long worried that government regulators might one day institute a strict online censorship regime akin to the conservative guidelines that govern theatrical film and TV content in the country. The new voluntary code signed by Netflix and its competitors represents a preemptive effort to show that the industry can responsibly manage itself. 

Local Indian streaming services ErosNow, Zee5, Arre and ALT Balaji joined the foreign platforms in agreeing to the scheme. Amazon Prime Video, which launched in India two years ago, was not among the signatories, however. When contacted by THR, an Amazon representative said: "While we are assessing the situation, we believe that the current laws are adequate to fulfill this mission."

In a statement to THR, Netflix said, "The self-regulation code is a set of guiding principles for participating companies like us. It ensures an environment that protects the artistic vision of content producers so that their work can be seen by their fans. The code also empowers consumers to make viewing choices that are right for them and their families. With the growth of entertainment choices today, it has never been a better time to be a creator or consumer of entertainment and we firmly believe there must be the freedom to create and the freedom to choose."

The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), a local industry body, will oversee the new code. Its committee on digital entertainment had earlier stated on its website that "it is a matter of time before regulatory and judicial authorities step in," while adding that "to avoid any unilateral regulation governing digital entertainment content, it is important for all [online video platforms] to debate this issue and create solutions from within."

The IAMAI said Thursday, the opening day of the annual India Digital Summit in New Delhi, that the companies participating "have voluntarily signed a self-regulatory code of best practices" under its aegis. It added that the code "has been in the works for over a year" and establishes guiding principles for platforms "to conduct themselves in a responsible and transparent manner, and at the same time ensures that consumer interests are protected."

The IAMAI also highlighted that the "constitutional framework of India upholds freedom of speech and expression, including commercial speech," and that the signatories to the code "seek to uphold the freedom as envisaged in the constitution of India."

The code prohibits content that "represents a child engaged in real or simulated sexual activities, or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes" or that "deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or national flag." Signatories also promise to avoid content that "deliberately and maliciously intends to outrage religious sentiments of any class, section or community" or programming that "deliberately and maliciously promotes or encourages terrorism and other forms of violence against the state (of India) or its institutions."

The goals of the code are to help consumers to make informed choices, including on age-appropriate content, and provide a mechanism and process for content complaints, while respecting the creative freedom of creators and artists.

Participating companies must establish an internal redressal department to receive and consider complaints from consumers and those forwarded by India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, or Ministry of Electronics and Information.
The IAMAI and the signatory companies also expressed eagerness to collaborate with other players. Viacom's Indian partner Network18 Media group general counsel Kshipra Jatana said that "this endeavor is a significant step forward in striking the right balance between defending creative freedom and protecting consumer interests."

Sony Pictures Networks India general counsel Ashok Nambissan added that "self-regulation encourages creativity and makes content creators more responsive to their viewers."

Last year, Netflix was among other digital platforms in Southeast Asia that came together to announce the creation of a self-regulatory Subscription Video-on-Demand Industry Content Code to safeguard consumer interests. That code also set principles to ensure that content offered on participating platforms is authentic, free from hate speech, hate crimes, pornography and other forms of inappropriate content.

India is emerging as a hot growth market for digital platforms with the country's online video audience reaching 225 million in 2018, a figure that consultants KPMG projects will double over the next five years to 550 million — a user base 67 percent larger than the entire population of the United States (where the number of online video users stands at 227.5 million). According to a recent report by Boston Consulting Group, India's digital video market is expected to reach $5 billion by 2023.