In a recent legal showdown, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) found itself at the center of a debate involving Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms, broadcasting, and cable services.1 The case, brought before the tribunal, raises questions about the jurisdiction and regulatory framework for these emerging digital media platforms.
All India Digital Cable Federation ("the Petitioner"), argued that Star India Pvt Ltd ("the Respondent") was in violation of Regulation 3(2) of The Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Services Interconnection (Addressable Systems) Regulation, 2017 (hereinafter referred to as "the Regulations, 2017"). The core of the Petitioner's argument was that the Respondent, while charging the Petitioner for their Star Sports channel, was simultaneously allowing users to access the same content for free through its OTT platform.
Regulation 3(2) Violation
One of the primary arguments put forth by the Petitioner was that the Respondent's actions amounted to a violation of Regulation 3(2) of the Regulations, 2017. This regulation requires TV channels to be provided on a non-discriminatory basis. The Petitioner alleged that by offering Star Sports for free on their OTT platform while charging the Petitioner, the Respondent was engaging in discriminatory practices.
OTT Platforms and Their Classification
A central issue in this case revolves around the classification of OTT platforms. The Petitioner argued that OTT platforms, although not explicitly mentioned in the definition of "distribution platform" in Regulation 2(r), should be considered under the purview of the Regulations, 2017. They contended that OTT platforms utilize the internet, thereby falling within the ambit of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and thus, the Tribunal's jurisdiction.
In response, the Respondent emphasized that the definition of "distribution platform" was exhaustive and could not be expanded by the Tribunal. They asserted that OTT platforms did not fit within the scope of the Regulations, 2017 since they were not TV channels. Moreover, they highlighted that TRAI had already initiated a consultation process to determine whether OTT platforms should be regulated under the TRAI Act or not, indicating the complexity of the issue.
The Jurisdiction Conundrum
One of the key debates in this case revolves around the jurisdiction of TRAI in regulating OTT platforms. The Petitioner argued that since OTT platforms use broadband internet, they should fall within the definition of "Telegraph" as defined under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. This argument seeks to place OTT platforms squarely within the jurisdiction of TRAI.
However, the Respondent asserted that OTT platforms are not explicitly mentioned in the definition of "distribution platform" under the Regulations, 2017. They argued that the definition is exhaustive and cannot be expanded by the tribunal. This stance implies that TRAI does not have authority over OTT platforms as they are not covered by the existing regulatory framework.
Interim Relief Denied
While the Tribunal admitted the broadcasting petition, it denied the Petitioner's request for interim relief. The tribunal found that prima facie, OTT platforms do not fall under the regulatory purview of the TRAI Act, 1997. Additionally, it cited the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the rules framed under it as the relevant regulatory framework for OTT platforms.
The Tribunal emphasized that the definition of "distribution platform" did not cover OTT platforms and that the petitioner had not demonstrated a need for urgent relief. The Tribunal also highlighted the availability of alternatives for the petitioner, such as maintaining a list of consumers affected by the alleged violations.
This case serves as a significant legal battleground in India's evolving digital media landscape. The outcome will not only impact the regulation of OTT platforms but also shed light on the jurisdictional boundaries of telecom regulatory authorities. The Tribunal's decision to admit the case but deny interim relief reflects the complexity of the issue and the need for a comprehensive assessment of the legal and regulatory landscape for OTT platforms.
The central question revolves around whether OTT platforms should be subject to the same regulatory framework as traditional broadcasting and cable services. As this legal battle unfolds, it will likely have far-reaching implications for the treatment of OTT platforms in India. The case also underscores the importance of defining clear regulatory boundaries in an increasingly digitized and interconnected media landscape. Ultimately, the outcome of this case will provide valuable insights into the evolving regulatory framework for broadcasting and cable services in the digital age.
1. All India Digital Cable Federation v Star India Pvt Ltd, https://tdsat.gov.in/Delhi/services/daily_order_view.php?filing_no=NDM2MzM=
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