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Exclusive: Worried about obscenity, India asks streamers for content checks

The ministry "highlighted concerns regarding obscene and vulgar content on OTT platforms, as expressed by Members of Parliament, citizen groups, and the general public," said the minutes, which are not public but were seen by Reuters.

India has told Netflix, Disney and other streaming services that their content should be independently reviewed for obscenity and violence before being shown online, according to a government document and sources.

The proposal was delivered to the streaming platforms at a June 20 meeting at the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. The streaming companies, also referred to as OTT platforms, objected and no decision was reached, according to government minutes of the talks and an industry source who attended.

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The ministry “highlighted concerns regarding obscene and vulgar content on OTT platforms, as expressed by Members of Parliament, citizen groups, and the general public,” said the minutes, which are not public but were seen by Reuters.

Netflix and Amazon have become hugely popular in India, which is set to grow into a $7 billion market for the sector by 2027, according to Media Partners Asia.

Top Bollywood stars feature in online material, some of which has faced criticism from lawmakers and the public for scenes deemed vulgar or offensive to religious sentiments.

Though all films in Indian cinemas are reviewed and certified by a government-appointed board, streamed content is not.

Officials in the meeting asked the industry to consider an independent panel to review content so that unsuitable material could be weeded out, two people who attended said.

The industry objected but the officials asked them to consider the idea, they added.

The government highlighted the need for a “more proactive approach” to ensure that streaming content, “including international content”, aligns with a so-called code of ethics, the minutes showed.

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That code already mandates providers to exercise caution on content that could incite violence or be sensitive for religious reasons.

The meeting was attended by Amazon, Disney, Netflix, Reliance’s broadcast unit, Viacom18, and Apple TV.

The companies and the ministry did not respond to requests for comments.

‘PROPAGATE VULGARITY’

The discussions signal growing scrutiny of India’s fast-growing streaming market.

The proposal also comes as streaming giants protest a government order to add 50-second tobacco health warnings in each piece of content, and two years after India ordered the setting up self-regulatory bodies for complaints about streaming content.

Industry executives say India’s streaming regulations are among the world’s most stringent.

At an April event, when the government agreed to a partnership with Amazon to promote film and television, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said streaming platforms should “not propagate vulgarity and abuse camouflaged as creative expression”.

Thakur has said complaints about obscene content were increasing and the government was willing to change regulations if need be to address the problem.

Indian officials also proposed at the meeting the formation of an expert panel to set age ratings, instead of platforms doing that themselves, one of the attendees said.

The platforms said they would ensure strong parental controls and “special care would be taken in respect of suitability of the international content”, the minutes showed.

Suhasini Maniratnam of the Digital Publisher Content Grievance Council, told the gathering pre-censorship could hurt the industry growth and cost jobs, and that given the high volume of content “there is a need to specifically act” against obscene and vulgar content.