Just a few days after it became the nodal ministry for all over-the-top content, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) is preparing to file a petition seeking the transfer of all court cases in India against OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar to the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday the government informed the Punjab and Haryana High Court about its move to approach the Supreme Court over this.
At least 23 cases pertaining to OTT content are being heard in different courts of the country, and it will be better if the SC hears them all, ministry officials told ET.
One of them said for over two years now, senior officials and legal experts had been appearing on behalf of the ministry in courts in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Allahabad, Bengaluru and Bhopal.
“Our position remains the same in all cases … And if the Supreme Court gives its verdict, the other courts will have to comply,” the official said. The decision to file a petition for the transfer of cases to the Supreme Court was taken before the OTTs were brought under the MIB’s purview earlier this month, he added.
Legal experts pointed out that while high courts had often dismissed petitions seeking censorship of streaming services, the Supreme Court had not addressed the issue as many times as the high courts. However, last month, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the central government and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in a petition to regulate OTT platforms by an autonomous body. The government had earlier told the court in the Sudarshan News case that there was a need to regulate digital media in the country.
Experts also said the ministry’s effort to get all cases against OTT platforms transferred to the Supreme Court seemed directed towards bringing a final resolution to the issue of regulating curated online content and preventing the possibility of different OTT players taking different positions in courts.
Apar Gupta, executive director at digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, said the move would be seen with a certain level of nervousness, not just by OTT platforms but also by artists and viewers. This is particularly because it comes after the Delhi High Court rejected a petition to have cinema-style regulation for OTT content.
While dismissing the Justice for Rights Foundation’s petition that had asked for the regulation of online streaming services, the Delhi High Court had said the platforms did not need to acquire a licence to operate. The ministry has then said that it did not regulate this category of companies, but since then the ministry has expedited its consultations with the IAMAI to draft a regulation code for video streaming OTT platforms. As of recently, the ministry has also started looking at how OTT platforms work in other Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Japan.
Top executives at video-streaming services that ET spoke with raised concerns over the ministry’s move. One executive said the way things were moving, it seemed that the government had already decided content rules for the sector, without even discussing with the industry.
“The MIB has just taken control of the content and now they told a high court about this transfer petition. Is the MIB going to tell the Supreme Court that there are no rules? What do you think the court will do then,” asked the executive.
The IAMAI had earlier presented a self-regulation code, endorsed by the top 15 OTT players, which had a complaint or grievance redressal mechanism with internal representatives and an external domain expert. However, the MIB rejected it, terming it just a “token model” of self-regulation.
Some OTT players are worried that an overzealous attempt at regulating the sector would have a negative impact, as it would stifle creativity and also keep strategic investors out, affecting the growth of the sector.
“All the serious and responsible players follow some sort of self-regulation code and also the law of the land. Now if the government wants OTT to follow stringent rules like TV, it will kill the sector and soon viewers will go back to access pirated content,” the head of a popular OTT service said.