Policing the internet: Online news is a gaggle in face of regulation

Of the 662 million Indians online, about 395 million consume news from a mix of legacy and digital-only brands such as Indian Express, NDTV, The Wire, Scroll and The Quint among many others
The video on making rotis? Or the sites offering false narratives of Indian history. Or will it be the ones that report real news, not propaganda. As the first building blocks of a regulatory architecture around digital news fall in place, a guessing game on what will be hit has begun.

The first block on November 9 brought digital and online media under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). The second, on November 16, had outlined steps to reduce foreign direct investment (FDI) to 26 per cent in outlets “uploading/streaming news and current affairs through digital media”. This follows a September 2019 press note. The third is a proposal to bring online news media under the ambit of the rules that govern print media.

It has sparked worry, speculation, some “I told you sos”, and one shutdown, that of HuffPost India. DailyHunt, Inshorts and many other aggregators and news sites that had raised capital over several rounds of funding are scrambling to meet the October 15, 2021, deadline for reducing foreign equity. There is talk of many of the smaller websites moving to Singapore and operating with a bureau in India. One rough estimate puts the money invested in online news and news platforms in India at around $100 million -$200 million in the last three years.

“If this goes through nobody will invest in Indian news media. It will be run by politicians. Because the ones who survive are those who take money from politicians or their proxies. It will go the news television way,” says Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder, Newslaundry.

India has over 400 news channels, more than half of which are owned by politicians, their affiliates or random companies that burn cash and make it difficult for serious players to make money. Its polarising and misleading narrative has made Indian news broadcasting a global case study of bad journalism. Yet it continues to enjoy a 49 per cent FDI cap (though no foreign investment has come in). “Digital offers exponential growth and yet the foreign capital allowed is lower than the (news) broadcast cap,” says Suparna Singh, head, NDTV Convergence.

This is arguably the first and biggest implication of the regulatory building blocks — it will bring down the capital available for growth in a market with so much headroom for it.

Of the 662 million Indians online, about 395 million consume news from a mix of legacy and digital-only brands such as Indian Express, NDTV, The Wire, Scroll and The Quint among many others. Then there are players such as Inshorts, ScoopWhoop, Google, Facebook or Twitter which offer a mix of news, entertainment, audio and user-generated content. Though it is smaller than print or TV, digital is the fastest growing (over 20 per cent) in revenues. In 2019, advertisers spent Rs 22,100 crore on online as a medium — about 70 per cent of this went to Google and Facebook. Rough estimates put the Indian digital news market (ad plus subscription) at Rs 4,000-6,000 crore. To scale up it needs technology, training and loads of capital. Yet in a year that will see the industry shrinking by at least 15-20 per cent in revenues, there is now a squeeze on capital.

The noose tightens

The second implication stems from the draft of the Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill (RPP, 2019). This is a successor to the Press and Registration of Books Act (1867), the British Government’s tool for harassing Indian language publications by putting them through a rigmarole of registrations, clearances and random processes. If not adhered to these could lead to overnight shutdown of the press. No government changed it. Now it is proposed that digital be part of this. “Do you expect every podcast and blog to be registered? It can become a tool for harassment,” says one large publisher. “How the ministry defines news and current affairs and the jurisdiction not clear. Will they block every site?” asks Nikhil Pahwa, founder, Medianama. “Some clarity is needed. The fine print is awaited,” says Rajiv Verma, executive director, Digital News Publishers Association. It represents legacy brands such as Dainik Bhaskar, NDTV or The Times of India, with a digital presence.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, reckons that across the world there is more political appetite for regulation of online. But any large-scale policy initiative needs clear understanding of “What to do and who will deal with it?” India faces these questions along with the added complication of an industry that is conflicted about everything — FDI, ideology and the question of regulation itself. One large publisher points to the several existing laws that already govern news content and wonders why a whole new framework is necessary. “At the time of Covid, the government should be focusing on reviving the devastated media industry rather than finding new laws to lock up its journalists and content producers. This controlling mindset for online is out of tune with technology and the nature of the medium,” says he.

“The whole industry is reading it (move to regulate) in a lopsided fashion. If radio, print, TV can be regulated why not digital?” asks Sanjay Gupta, chief editor and CEO, Jagran Prakashan. “I don’t think anybody is saying there will be censorship, if there is censorship even we will oppose,” says Jayant Mathew, executive editor and director, Malayala Manorama Group.

There are now three industry bodies — of legacy publishers, digital-only publisher and a third somewhat random one — talking to the government in different voices. This conflict has allowed the 26 per cent rule and could mean the RPP goes through without adequate discussion. If it does, digital might come under the Press Council Act. “The minister has spoken about giving more teeth to it,” says one publisher. Many of the print brands are comfortable with that while broadcast members on the legacy body prefer the code used by the News Broadcasters Association. The pure play digital players prefer a liberal, more facilitative regulatory hand.

These divisions then mean that Google, Facebook et al are not being brought up in context of the changes. “Social media certainly needs regulation. It is very easy for a company to say algorithm chooses, they conveniently use the human element when they want and when they don’t,” says Mathew. But that will not come up till the industry speaks in one voice.

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