Crack the big digital convergence conundrum
Technology has evolved, the way consumers consume information too has evolved. But rules, regulations and the way the media is regulated has not. This needs to change as the digital space evolves further
Of all the incongruous laws that still exist in India from colonial times, one really boggles the mind. No, it is not Section 377 of the Indian penal Code which also really needs to go, but the Indian Telegraph Act, which governs all forms of wired and wireless communications inside the Indian territory. Not only are telegrams obsolete and were discontinued in July 2013, almost two decades after the first mobile phones came into India, but the Indian Telegraph Act dates back to 1885. A 132-year-old legislation governs modern communications technology. Sure, it would be unfair to say that this Act has not been modified over the years, indeed the 1933 Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act formed the basis of early wireless telephony policies.
However, the rapid evolution of technology is evidenced by the introduction of the iPhone, just over 10 years ago, and where smartphones have come now. Ten years ago, Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone giant, was keen to promote a technology called Digital Video Broadcasting — handheld (DVB-H) which would have broadcast signals over the air to be picked up on mobile phones, making a mobile phone like a small handheld television. The thought process then was that bandwidth was extremely limited, the basic 2.5G EDGE networks could barely open a webpage, let alone stream video. But DVB-H turned out to be a stillborn project as technology got the better of it, and of Nokia which was completely and totally blindsided by the iPhone.
But back to broadcasting and the lack of proper regulation in that sector. There is no doubt that cable and satellite television channels have changed the way Indians watch television. This writers’ generation was the last generation to have experienced black-and-white TV with only a single channel, the state-run Doordarshan available. The emergence of a second channel, DD2, made waves when it happened. But it was the first live-televised war that changed everything.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait set in place a lot of things —it was no doubt the genesis of the chaos that envelops the Levant today — but it was also the era of CNN and satellite news. It gave birth to the neighbourhood ‘cable-wallah’, complete with an array of massive satellite dishes on his rooftop. Indians were suddenly exposed to American Soap Operas, some of us remember Santa Barbara and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ on the original single-channel Star TV broadcast from Hong Kong. But there was no concept of regulation and until the Government went to war in 1995 with Jagmohan Dalmiya and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which had been quick to realise the potential of television rights, that the impetus to draft some legislation was garnered. Yet, 22 years later, there is still no regulation and the temporary solution in 2004 of having the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to manage the broadcasting sector as it was classified as a ‘telecommunications’ service has continued.
This is not for a lack of trying. In 1997, soon after the first Supreme Court verdict on cricket rights, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, headed by Ram Vilas Paswan, had proposed a radio and television regulatory authority. These ideas were refined by various parliamentary committees and culminated in the Broadcasting Bill of 1997. But given the political turmoil at the time, India endured three general elections between 1996 and 1999 — the ideas of the committee were lost to the sands of time and politics when the XI Lok Sabha was dissolved.
It was the second attempt that was even more refined, the Communications Convergence Bill of 2001. Moved by the Vajpayee Government of the time and drafted by a team led by eminent jurist Fali Nariman, this was a forward thinking piece of legislation that did a remarkably prescient job of predicting how technology would evolve. It proposed several Acts, including the 1885 and 1933 Acts, which should be repealed, as well as more recent Acts, including the TRAI Act and proposed the establishment of a single regulator for all communications and broadcasting called the Communications Commission of India.
While there were some fundamental issues with the Act, especially when it came to the area of Intellectual Property Rights, a single regulator and a single Ministry would have been on the lines of what the United States has done with the Federal Communications Commission and the United Kingdom’s Office of Communications (OfCom).
The 2001 Bill was stalled by vested interests in the coalition Government of the time, some broadcasters were loathe to accept ‘regulation’ as the land-grab continued. The Indian bureaucracy itself was horrified at the idea of an unified ‘Communications Ministry’ replacing the Telecommunications, Information Technology and Information and Broadcasting ministries in one fell swoop. Even considering the time available, this Bill lapsed when the XIII Lok Sabha was dissolved in 2004. The failure to pass this Bill should remain one of major policy failures of the Vajpayee Government but of course, the 10 years of Congress rule saw little attempts by the Government to regulate the broadcast sector and the industry made some feeble attempts at self-regulation.
Today, we live in an era where thanks to the emergence of a new entrant into the market data prices have crashed. The way people consume information has changed. Media companies, newspapers or television channels and even websites have had to move to a ‘mobile-first’mantra and the term ‘MoJo’, signifying mobile journalism has taken root. We actually live in a converged world, no media site is a newspaper alone; video and social media matter.
However, the Internet has become a sort of ‘wild west’, while newspapers are actually regulated by the Press Council of India and are liable even under civil and criminal defamation Acts, it seems that anything and everything can go online, including outright lies and slander. While newspapers and magazines can be held liable for ‘paid news’ during elections, the same does not apply online. There is an actual problem of fake news and fake information out there, some media outlets have only prior credibility to go on, but the government, the media and technology companies have to realise that we are in a crisis right now.
Regulations and jurisprudence have not managed to keep up with technology and changing consumption habits. Today, it is possible to watch any channel from anywhere in the world on your mobile device while travelling on public transport. With mobile networks getting ever faster with 5G networks on their way by 2020, there needs to be better regulation. This Government, therefore, needs to work on something, maybe getting Nariman’s 2001 Act out of the filing Cabinet and reworking it and ensuring the passage of a modern Bill to deal with modern communications and not have an Act from before every Indian alive was born forming the basis of communications law.
(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)
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