By Arpita Biswas
In May 2017, a movie titled ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ was released on Netflix India. A censored version of the film, originally intended for theatrical release was made available. Critics brought attention to the self-censorship Netflix was resorting to, in the absence of censorship guidelines for streaming platforms. While theatrical releases are regulated by the Central Board of Film Certification, their jurisdiction does not extend to online platforms, as was recently made evident through an RTI response from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Eventually, the director of ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ informed viewers that Netflix had insisted on making the censored version available themselves.
Other platforms like Amazon Prime and Hotstar also indulge in the precarious practice of ‘self-censorship’. As per the law, films meant for theatrical release are certified by the CBFC. Through the process of certification, the CBFC has the power to request edits to the film. However, there is no legal stipulation for streaming services to censor content as the CBFC would. In some instances, documentaries, which were not intended for theatrical release in India, were available on streaming platforms in their censored forms. This post will navigate this phenomena of self-censorship.
What is the applicable law?
Prior to the RTI response by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, there has been speculation over whether streaming platforms are Internet Protocol Television services (IPTV). IPTVs in India are bound by the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, and need a license provided by the Department of Telecommunications to function. However, streaming services are considered to be over-the-top (OTT) services, and are not bound by the same regulations.
The status of streaming platforms has been considered by the judiciary as well. In 2016, a petition was filed in the Delhi High Court stating that the online streaming service Hotstar had made ‘soft pornographic’ content available on their platform. The petition stated that Hotstar, as an IPTV service, was in contravention of the downlinking guidelines. In response, Hotstar debated their status as an IPTV service and also categorically stated that they did not host any content that could be considered to be ‘soft pornography’.
This case has not made any progress since 2016, and there seems to be no judicial consensus on the status of streaming platforms as IPTV service providers.
In a recent judgment titled Raksha Jyoti Foundation vs. Union of India, the Punjab and Haryana High Court made references to an affidavit filed by the CBFC which would ensure that deleted parts of a film are not further released by other means. This would be carried out through undertakings, which the directors/producers would be held to. This system would effectively ensure that uncensored films are not made available on streaming platforms. It is unclear what the current position of this censorship procedure is, but if carried out, it would be in conflict with the RTI response.
Platform specific guidelines
Platforms like Netflix haven’t published censorship guidelines of their own, but they do have separate ‘maturity ratings’ according to country and region. The CEO of Netflix has also stated that they would have ‘airplane cuts’ of movies for different regions, stating that ‘entertainment companies have to make compromises over time’.
Despite the absence of censorship laws applicable to streaming platforms, there are still other laws applicable to these platforms in India. As mentioned above, the downlinking guidelines were one such set of rules which were considered applicable. In addition, statutes like the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860 would also be applicable. It could be the case that streaming platforms are censoring content to ensure that they are in compliance with other statutes.
There is also a possibility that international services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are trying to find their place in the Indian market without drawing attention for the wrong reasons. Amazon for instance has publicly stated that they intend to keep in mind ‘Indian cultural sensitivities’ while making content available. In addition, platforms like Hotstar are run by parent companies like Star India, with ancillary business interests that they would be interested in protecting.
Unexpectedly, streaming platforms, which were meant to be avenues of free media in an age of heavily regulated television content, are following the same route as traditional media outlets.
This trend of self-censorship on streaming websites is similar to other internet platforms, who resort to self-censorship to avoid legal trouble. The tendency to ‘err on the side of caution’ is similar to platforms adhering to the intermediary liability laws in India. This form of tip-toeing around issues of regulation has led to a chilling effect on other internet platforms and could also lead to ‘over-censorship’ on streaming websites.
It is disconcerting that streaming websites are censoring content in the absence of laws, and leaves us speculating about the state of freedom of expression once censorship laws are in place.
Arpita Biswas is a Programme Officer at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi