Regulating India: Is Censorship Of Web Content Justified?

Is it necessary to monitor the seemingly rampant violence, nudity and obscenity in web shows or does that infringe on the freedom of speech? We take a look
Regulating India: Is Censorship Of Web Content Justified?

Censorship and Indian cinema are like the Joker and the Batman. Just like the Joker wouldn't let the Batman live a peaceful life, censorship just cannot stop breathing down the neck of Indian filmmakers. To break free of its shackles, a lot of filmmakers turned to producing content for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. The internet, as we all know, allows the utmost freedom of expression. However, this freedom seems to be in danger now with Mumbai High Court asking Internet & Broadcasting Ministry to 'regulate' India's web content in the future. This came after advocate Divya Ganeshprasad Gontia filed a public interest litigation (PIL) arguing against the seemingly rampant violence, nudity and obscenity presented in web shows like Netflix's Sacred Games and Alt Balaji's XXX Uncensored.

The idea of regulating web content has divided people. Those in favour want to monitor uncontrolled vulgarity and obscenity. They also want to protect children from the adverse impacts of such content. Those who are against regulation are protesting to protect the freedom of expression.

The regulation – or to use the layman word, censorship – of films and television goes as far back as 1952. The Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), a self-regulatory body, keeps a check on television content, while the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) does the job of 'regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952'.

Web content doesn't fall under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act. One reason for this is that the internet is fairly new and continuously developing. Unlike cinema and television, which lend themselves to community viewing, the internet allows viewing privately. Where television was designed to be viewed with the family, the internet is a more individualistic medium. The Netflix and Amazon model depends on people buying a subscription and getting content streamed to their personal device. Here, content is not screened for a few hundred people at a cinema hall. So strictly on the basis of system design, the government deciding to censor content that is inherently designed for personal viewing is in a way, an invasion of privacy. The Supreme Court might have something to say about that.

However, there are likely to be scenarios in which children are exposed to vulgar content on OTT platforms. Censorship in this case means letting the parents off the hook. It is their responsibility, and not the government's, to regulate content for children. Moreover, inept parenting should not lead to curbs on an adult's freedom to watch the content of his or her choice. 

There's an added dimension to this debate. The government's concerns about web shows were spawned largely after the release of Sacred Games, a Netflix original series. Netflix originals are streamed across the world regardless of the country of production. The ethos of OTT platforms, not just Netflix and Amazon Prime, but even Indian platforms like Alt Balaji, Voot and Zee5, is based on the concept of Net Neutrality that allows them to tap into a global market. So if the government decides to regulate or censor a show like Sacred Games, they would be doing it for audiences across the world. Roughly speaking, a Swede doesn't share the same cultural and societal sensibilities as an Indian. Neither does a Polish or a Tasmanian citizen. So should the Indian government censor something that is designed for the global audience? In this regard, regulation for one means regulation for all.

Many such questions over the medium-specific technicality and feasibility of regulation need to be addressed. However, the central question is that surrounding the freedom of expression. Does regulation – of any kind in the realm of art – curb the freedom of expression? Personally speaking, yes.

What the government calls uncontrolled vulgarity and obscenity is an opportunity to examine the chaotic and unpredictable human nature and/or behaviour through the controlled confinements of art and design. Homosexuality was also deemed vulgar and obscene before it became accepted as a natural state just a few months ago. Art holds a great power to communicate ideas and conduct dialogues, some of which are complex. Some ideas need nuanced attention. Some force you to participate in a messy communication. Some shed light on human nature not being black and white but full of gradations. And that's a good thing.Attending to difficult and somewhat-provocative ideas help raise the collective sensibilities of a society. Censoring those communications hinders the access to that possibility. An uncensored access to ideas allows everyone an equal opportunity to interpret, scrutinise and deconstruct them. It is then up to us as a society to either build upon those ideas or eradicate them.

To give an example from the pages of history, when Johannes Gutenberg introduced Europe to the printing press, the Bible was among the first books to be printed for mass distribution, allowing an easy and equal access to its content that was communicated – or regulated – by the authorities at Catholic Church. It was only after this uncensored access to the word of God that a huge chunk of society concluded that maybe it was not God who created man in his image. Maybe it was man who created the image of God – a radical idea for its time that helped fuel the age of enlightenment. What Gutenberg's printing press did back then, the internet has the power to do today – provided it is used wisely by its consumers. Censorship of any kind defuses that very power of the medium.

Censorship might seem appealing in a country like India, which has a 74% literacy rate. However, what starts as a noble idea of restricting profanity and obscenity inevitably adds new and radical ideas under its restrictive boundaries. Before you know it, these ideas are censored under the guise of them being harmful to Indian sensibility. This is completely counterproductive to social, intellectual and cultural progress. History has already taught us that the progress of a community doesn't happen by restricting thoughts, but by encouraging them. However impossible to attain, a free-thinking utopian society is what the government and its citizens need to strive for instead of replicating an Orwellian dystopia.

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