After the global scandal that has engulfed Google in the wake of revelations that they were developing a censored search engine for China, you would think that big tech companies would want to avoid any links with censorship right now.
Think again! Reports from India suggest that three of the world’s biggest online streaming services, Netflix, Amazon, and Hotstar are considering adopting a voluntary censorship code.
Streaming censorship coming to India?
According to sources, a meeting was held in New Delhi earlier this week between the main Video on Demand (VOD) providers in India. It was coordinated by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
It is reported that they discussed the prospect of introducing a censorship code which would block content which they determine contains or promotes such content as hate speech, hate crime, child pornography and a variety of other content which is deemed ‘inappropriate’.
Discussions remain at an early stage and it is not yet clear how these companies will choose to define such terms or identify what classifies as ‘inappropriate content’.
Online rights activists are likely to find the discussions deeply disturbing as they appear to be yet another example of tech companies unilaterally deciding what people can and cannot see online.
With the controversy over Alex Jones and the censorship of Infowars still fresh in the memory, there will undoubtedly be concerns that VOD providers are now handing themselves the right to decide what people can stream online too.
At present, the online streaming market in India remains completely unregulated. While this largely conservative nation closely controls the type of content that can be broadcast on TV, there are no such controls of what can be streamed online.
But as online streaming grows rapidly in India, the industry is clearly concerned that things cannot remain this way indefinitely.
A source who attended the meeting suggested to the Economic Times that VOD companies are worried that regulatory uncertainty, changing censorship requirements and court rulings that could impact their Indian business models.
Why censor now?
It is not immediately clear where these concerns come from. India’s Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has said as recently as 2016 that it has no plans to regulate online content. Indeed, they noted that all platforms have their own internal rules and stressed their stance that ‘self-regulation is the way to go’.
It could be that, in private, the Indian Government has indicated to VOD companies that this self-regulation needs to be strengthened if they are not going to step in.
It has also been suggested that VOD companies are worried that, without stronger self-regulation, they risk a public backlash. India is not only a traditional and conservative country but also often an intolerant one.
If any of these VOD companies were found to be making content available in India which was believed to be hurting religious sentiment, denigrating Indian culture, defaming personalities and obscenity and so on, the likely consequences would be severe.
It is not unknown for Indian’s to take to the streets in violent protests against such things. Online vitriol is almost guaranteed and the likelihood of a public boycott of the service is high. And people like this in India tend to have long memories, so the likelihood of turning such a situation around is slim.
Online freedom and using a VPN
Nevertheless, any move to self-censor is likely to upset those who advocate great freedom of speech and creative freedom in India.
Many of those who can currently access reliable streaming platforms are in the middle classes who are usually far more liberal and tolerant and therefore value the range of content that is available to them.
It is early days, but if such self-censorship were to come into play, many India’s would no doubt be looking for a way to get around it. By far the most effective way to do this is by using a VPN.
VPNs are simple online tools which are used in many countries to evade online censorship. By connecting to a VPN in another country, they are able to access content which is unavailable at home because they are fooling the VOD company into thinking they are located somewhere else.
It is a pretty common practice, especially with services like Netflix, whose content and service can vary dramatically from country to country. But by using a VPN such as ExpressVPN or NordVPN, you can access the US version of Netflix which offers the biggest range of content at one of the most affordable prices.
For users in India who want to protect themselves from online streaming censorship, a good way to start is to by taking a look at our articles on the Best VPN for Netflix 2018 and the Best VPN for India 2018.