Netflix, Hotstar, Jio, and six other streaming services have come together to sign a voluntary self-regulation code in India, which defines what kind of content would not be allowed on their platforms. That includes anything which disrespects the national flag or emblem, has children engaged in real or simulated sex, offends religious sentiments, promotes or encourages terrorism, or has been banned by applicable laws. This is a somewhat surprise move from India's streaming service players, given online content does not currently fall under any censorship laws, the likes of which apply to theatrical film releases, thanks to the Central Board of Film Certification, or television content, which is self-regulated with the looming threat of fine and licence suspension.
The new online self-regulation agreement, officially known as the “Code of Best Practices for Online Curated Content Providers”, has been in the works for a year and was developed with the help of the Internet And Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The full list of signatories includes ALTBalaji, Arre, Eros Now, Hotstar, Jio, Netflix, SonyLIV-owner Sony Pictures Networks, Voot parent Viacom18, and ZEE5. The biggest name missing here is of course, Amazon Prime Video, in addition to smaller players such as Hungama and Viu. Amazon choosing to sit out is especially interesting, given it has proactively engaged in various forms of self-censorship since its launch, which has covered religious sentiments, “Indian sensibilities”, and some forms of nudity.
“Amazon Prime Video is a premium on-demand entertainment service that offers members the greatest choice of what to watch and how to watch it,” Amazon said in a statement to Gadgets 360, upon being asked why it had decided not to sign on. “We provide customers with compelling content they love and creators a forum to create unique and passionate stories. While we are assessing the situation, we believe that the current laws are adequate to fulfil this mission.”
Though it's being termed as self-regulation, it essentially amounts to self-censorship given the broad applications of something that “offends religious sentiments”. That reasoning has been used in the past by easy-to-offend groups to block film releases, by getting the courts to intervene or in some cases, threatening violence against the filmmakers. In 2018 alone, three major films — Padmaavat, Manmarziyaan, and Kedarnath — bore the brunt of that, with religious organisations or affiliated ones delaying the release date and forcing the film to change its name, getting the producers to delete some scenes, or having the film pulled from theatres in certain regions, respectively.
“The self-regulation code is a set of guiding principles for participating companies like us,” Netflix said in a statement sent to Gadgets 360. “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.”
Netflix has faced multiple lawsuits over a line of dialogue in its original series Sacred Games about former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi from several Congress members and party affiliates. Their complaints were heavily diluted after Congress president Rahul Gandhi defended freedom of expression — in fact, most were withdrawn soon after — but more importantly, Netflix stood its ground. This doesn't technically fall under the new self-regulation code, so it will be interesting to see how such complaints are dealt with in the future.
“Self-regulation encourages creativity and makes content creators more responsive to their viewers,” Sony Pictures Networks India's general counsel, Ashok Nambissan, said in a statement sent to Gadgets 360. “It's worked well for broadcast media and there's no reason for it not do so for curated video content. We are happy to be part of this industry initiative.”
Though Sony argues that it has “worked well for broadcast media”, many viewers and critics do not see it that way, considering the excess impact it has had, even outside adult-oriented content. Since the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) created the self-regulatory guidelines in 2011, TV channels have been overzealous in their self-censorship efforts, afraid of losing their licence. For audiences, that's made for a terrible watching experience, with words such as 'shit', 'sex', 'boobs', 'hell', and even 'Jesus' being taken out, in addition to all the nudity.
Gadgets 360 had also reached out to ALTBalaji, Arre, Eros Now, Hotstar, Jio, Voot, and ZEE5 for a statement. Jio and Voot didn't offer a comment, while the rest have not responded to multiple requests. We will update this piece if we hear back.
Update 21/01 1:45pm — added a statement from SonyLIV