Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center on screen) addresses counterparts at the Asean-India Summit in Hanoi via a live video conference on Nov. 12. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP)
India's Narendra Modi government has passed an executive order authorizing scrutiny of web content, digital news and all media services offered directly to viewers.
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind signed the notification on Nov. 9.
The move is "a precursor to the framing of content guidelines for over the top (OTT) platforms on the lines of broadcasting rules in India," an official told UCA News.
Until now, the OTT content came under the purview of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, while films approved by the Censor Board in India were under the purview of Information and Broadcasting.
"Henceforth, the Ministry of Information will get more teeth and will be regulating all digital content, including television content," the official said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to media.
Although the government claims the move aims to fight fake news, critics say it could lead to bureaucrats harassing media and deciding what media should and should not publish.
"The media services offered directly to viewers are growing business, especially at the time of a pandemic-linked lockdown. The web industry must be allowed to grow under a non-discretionary atmosphere," said social activist Ratnadeep Das Gupta in Assam.
The order could also target news web portals critical of the government and not covered under any regulatory framework until now, unlike their print and television counterparts.
For example, international entertainment media platforms such as Netflix operate without any scrutiny of their content. Several such platforms have also mushroomed in India.
But Hindu radical bodies such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council) oppose such unregulated content. VHP had written to Netflix this year complaining that some of its programs had hurt Hindu sentiments.
The OpenNet Initiative, a group that documents internet filtering and surveillance, says India selectively filters the internet for its political, social and security interests.
Government authorities and various agencies, including police, are already empowered under different laws to block, filter and take down content online or even switch off internet access completely.
"Such has been the case in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 for months when the Modi government ended the semi-autonomous nature of the Muslim-majority region. The internet was cut to check growing protest," an official said.
There have been mixed reactions to the government move on social media.