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New Delhi CNN Business —  

Netflix is battling questions of censorship for the second time in three weeks — this time in India.

The company is one of nine streaming platforms that has signed a “code of best practices” that pledges to self-regulate the content they publish online. That includes content that “disrespects the national emblem or national flag” of India, “intends to outrage religious sentiments” and “encourages terrorism or other forms of violence against the State,” according to a copy of the code posted online by Indian tech website MediaNama.

Others who have reportedly signed the code include Hotstar, the country’s top streaming platform that will soon be owned by Disney (DIS), and Jio Cinema, the platform owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani.

CNN Business could not independently verify the code, and the industry body that published it, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), did not respond to a request for comment.

Netlix has ramped up its India content in a bid to capture millions of new users.
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
Netlix has ramped up its India content in a bid to capture millions of new users.

Netflix (NFLX) confirmed that it had signed the code, but the company downplayed suggestions that it amounts to censorship.

“The self-regulation code is a set of guiding principles for participating companies like us,” it said in a statement to CNN Business on Friday. “It ensures an environment that protects the artistic vision of content producers so that their work can be seen by their fans.”

Netflix also directed CNN Business to tweets by IAMAI that stressed the code “is not about content censorship,” but about protecting creative freedoms and encourage consumer choices.

“To equate the self-regulation code with censorship is grossly misleading,” the association said.

A spokesperson for Jio declined to comment. Six other platforms reported to have signed the code, including Hotstar, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sony’s (SNE) Indian streaming platform SonyLIV said it was “happy” to be part of the initiative.

“Self-regulation encourages creativity and makes content creators more responsive to their viewers,” Ashok Nambissan, general counsel for Sony Pictures in India, told CNN. “It’s worked well for broadcast media and there’s no reason for it not [to] do so for curated video content.”

A key market

India and its hundreds of millions of current (and potential) internet users present a key market for Netflix, which has more than a dozen Indian original shows and movies in the works.

The global streaming platform came under fire recently for blocking an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show “Patriot Act” in Saudi Arabia after officials from the Kingdom complained. The incident sparked a debate — and criticism — over the balance between freedom of speech and local laws and regulations.

The code the online streaming platforms have signed in India could set a bad precedent, its critics argue.

“It has an impact on free expression that automatically results in censorship,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, who is Asia Policy Director at digital advocacy group Access Now and the chairman of India’s Internet Freedom Foundation.

Chima said streaming companies need to be more transparent about the kinds of content they deem harmful and why — particularly in the world’s largest democracy.

“India, despite all of its problems, tends to be the most robust space for free expression,” he added. “[The code] is a step back.”

In a letter to the IAMAI co-authored by Chima, the Internet Freedom Foundation argued earlier this week that the proposed self-regulation is a slippery slope.

“Categories of self-censorship will stretch in future,” the letter said. “We reasonably fear that this is the start of a self-censorship design that will slowly extend.”

Dealing with outrage over online content deemed offensive in India is a reality several global tech companies have had to face recently. Twitter (TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey sparked controversy in the country during his maiden visit there in November, by posing with a poster deemed insulting to one of Hinduism’s top castes, or social groups.

And Amazon (AMZN), whose Prime Video service also operates in India, was forced to issue a hasty apology in 2017 after protests over some products, including a doormat bearing the Indian flag and flip-flops with an image of iconic freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. The products were quickly removed from Amazon’s platforms.

While the online streaming platforms are trying to avoid a similar backlash or statutory regulation, their code “defeats the premise” of a free internet, said Mishi Choudhary, legal director at the New York-based Software Freedom Law Center.

“It’s a pity that these companies have decided to assist in the creation of a nanny state where citizens cannot be trusted to consume content of their choosing,” Choudhary told CNN.

But Netflix insists that the new regulatory code empowers consumers as well as content creators.

“We firmly believe there must be the freedom to create and the freedom to choose,” the company said Friday.