A much-needed code

Recently, most large and popular online curated content (OCC) companies have agreed to a self-regulatory code of conduct. The code aims to; empower consumers to make informed choices on age-appropriate content; safeguard creative freedom of content creators and artists; provide a mechanism for complaints redressal in relation to content made available by respective OCC Providers.

The signatories to this code pledge to prohibit: 
  • Content which deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or national flag;
  • Content which represents a child engaged in real or simulated sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes ;
  • Content which deliberately and maliciously intends to outrage religious sentiments of any class, section or community;

  • Content which deliberately and maliciously promotes or encourages terrorism and other forms of violence against the State (of India) or its institutions; and
  • Content that has been banned for exhibition or distribution by online video service under applicable laws or by any court with competent jurisdiction.
In my opinion the restricted contents are just a reiteration of various limitations that the Information Technology Act, 2000, Indian Penal Code, 1860, Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950, Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, Copyright Act, 1957, put on free speech and expression and do not in any way exceed them. To that extent, the self-regulation code as adopted by OCCs is not self-censorship as has been claimed by some groups.

The concept of self-regulation or code of conduct is not new to the world of media and advertising. The Press Council of India (PCI), for instance, under The Press Council Act of 1978, set up a code of conduct for newspapers, news agencies and journalists to meet its overall objective of preserving the freedom of the press. As a quasi-judicial body, PCI has the same powers throughout India as are vested in a civil court while trying a suit to enforce the code. 

The Indian Broadcasting Foundation set up the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council in 2011, which adopted with suitable modifications the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting's Self-Regulation Guidelines for Broadcasting Sector (Draft 2008).

The centralised Consumer Complaints Council under Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) enforces the Code for Self-Regulation and investigates all complaints. In 2017, the Supreme Court of India affirmed and recognised the self-regulatory mechanism of ASCI.

These bodies and the codes have evolved in different ways, depending on the context in which these industries operate. However, they have one crucial advantage over hard coded laws — they can evolve and change with times. Such flexibility and openness is necessary, especially for mass media “regulations” since sentiments and notions of morality change every five years in a fast-paced society such as India.

Like many other self-regulatory codes, the present one too has its genesis in avoiding hide-bound inflexible government regulations that cannot be changed with the changing times. It also builds consumer confidence. OCC players are not broadcasters since they rely on “pull” to attract customers and are not governed by the broadcast laws. It is, therefore, a positive step since it reassures customers that these services do not operate in a lawless environment but abide by some guidelines. Finally, it is also assuring to the courts who are often asked to deal with public interest litigation against many of these companies on specious grounds such as a destruction of morale of the youth of the country.  

The biggest beneficiary of the code is going to be the public who will find a recourse to answer queries on the nature of content and do not have to run to LEAs or the courts to write to the PMO to have their grievances redressed.

While the OCC service providers with innovative and creative content are testing the norms of the society, as responsible businesses they are aware that content creativity and innovation needs to be guided by a loosely defined code. It is for this reason that the code has been widely accepted by large and small as well as Indian and multi-national companies. We are hopeful that many more companies will embrace the code soon.   
The author is president, Internet and Mobile Association of India. Views are personal

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