Why is Amazon Playing Uncle-Ji in the Indian Rollout of Prime Video?

Self-censorship by Amazon comes at a time when the company is worrying about regulatory and legal obstacles on the e-commerce front in India and when our political atmosphere is going through a particularly prickly phase.

Self-censorship by Amazon comes at a time when the company is worrying about regulatory and legal obstacles on the e-commerce front in India and when our political atmosphere is going through a particularly prickly phase.

A screenshot of the Amazon Prime Video India homepage. Credit: The Wire

A screenshot of the Amazon Prime Video India homepage. Credit: The Wire

New Delhi: Amazon Prime Video – the online retailer’s TV-and-movie streaming service, positioned globally as a competitor to Netflix – launched in India this week with a heavily censored offering. Or, paraphrasing from a statement put out by an Amazon Prime spokesperson, the streaming service has been made more palatable to the Indian audience.

Movies which have scenes with frontal nudity are blurred out. Vulgar profanity in various movies and TV shows is largely missing in the accompanying subtitles.

Amazon’s censorship also goes beyond the realm of the moral and extends to India’s supposed cultural sensitivities. The Grand Tour, a British motoring show with popular host Jeremy Clarkson which was produced exclusively for Amazon’s platform, has a huge chunk of content missing from its fourth episode. The missing content includes Clarkson driving a car made out of animal (including cow) carcasses. As film critic Raja Sen notes, “the hour-long episode has, absurdly enough, been shortened to half its length and there is no meat-car in sight.”

Tortured history

The history of online censorship and censorship by technology companies in India stretches far back. Putting aside overt political censorship in the form of Section 66A and other largely misused acts of legislation, Silicon Valley companies have almost always engaged in some form of censorship or the other; some of their own accord and others after violating specific rules.

The first clear case of a technology company violating Indian laws and bowing down to government pressure was Microsoft in 1995. Microsoft’s Windows 95 software, when released, as part of its time zone selection control, allowed Indian users to choose their specific time-zone by clicking on a country-specific map. For India, it showed only a partial Kashmir state, with clear demarcations for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. As a Microsoft press release noted at the time, “although this was a minor oversight on the part of the product group, which used United Nations maps not officially recognised by India”, the Indian government was extremely upset…and demanded that the problem be fixed before Windows 95 could be distributed in India”.

Over the years, online censorship became more tricky with the advent of the Information Technology Act 2000 and eventually extended to a whole new gamut of censorship with overzealous copyright claims by India’s movie industry and socio-religious censorship by touchy politicians.

Crawling without being asked

Self-censorship by technology companies in India, done without prodding or carried out even though the content isn’t specifically violating any Indian laws, is also not new.

When Apple Music was released in India, customers were in for a rude shock. Initially at least, in iTunes for Indian iPhone users, restrictions for the ‘Musics and Podcasts’ section’ was set to “Clean” – which meant that users couldn’t listen to explicit albums, listen to non-explicit songs in an explicit album or listen to explicit podcasts. Many of these restrictions were later rolled back.

Although many of these country restrictions and general viewing and listening restrictions can easily be gotten around, the end result is the same: for India, technology companies engage in self-censorship.

It’s quite clearly self-censorship for there is no specific law that prohibits online services from serving up content with nudity or profanity. Amazon’s decision to dabble in self-censorship is all the more puzzling after the results of a recent RTI (by online publication Medianama) were made public.

The RTI query, filed by Aroon Deep, specifically asked whether the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was “empowered to regulate/censor cinema or TV shows distributed online” and whether it was “pursuing the creation of any regulatory framework that would allow censorship of films/documentaries/TV shows online”.

To which the ministry replied: “At present, the ministry is not pursuing the creation of any regulatory framework for censorship of content appearing on the Internet”.

To be clear, censorship of online content still does happen in India,although its mostly because of some external pressure. In 2012, the controversial film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ , which sparked protests in Chennai, was removed off YouTube in India, although it wasn’t clear whether it was done because the Indian government asked the search engine to do so.  Nevertheless, this form of censorship is on a reactive, case-by-case basis.  Self-censorship is a different beast.

Why did Amazon sanitise its India content? In a handful of cheeky tweets last night, as well as through a more formal statement released to the media today, the company believes that it is “respecting customer preferences” in India. “We will keep Indian cultural sensitivities in mind while offering content to customers,” a spokesperson said.

Sliding smoothly into Indian culture

Curiously, rival Netflix, which was launched earlier this year with a far more expensive subscription tag, does not engage in any form of censorship. When it was launched earlier this year, it was one of the few streaming services that did not blur out nudity or edit out profanity.

In media interviews at the time, Netflix vice president Chris Jaffe points out that the “service encourages self-selection”. “Nothing on the service is censored at this point. Our goal is to comply with local rules and regulations but at this point there’s no censorship of anything on the service,” Jaffe said.

There are two broad and potential reasons why Amazon is self-censoring and why Netflix isn’t (although if pressured or controversies are created, it may too fall into line).

First, Amazon Prime Video isn’t the company’s primary play in the Indian market.

The Seattle-based technology giant is fighting battles in various sectors, the most important and potentially controversial of which is its e-commerce platform. It has poured in billions of dollars to capture a share of the online retail market and is facing multiple regulatory and legal struggles. Amazon is almost certainly wary of the concerns raised by the RSS surrounding foreign direct investment in e-commerce, the legal battles it may have to fight for allegedly violating FDI norms, and the very many tax disputes it is involved with various states such as Karnataka. In more recent times, domestic competitor Flipkart has called it out for “capital dumping”.

How these concerns eventually pan out is yet to be seen, but it’s clear that Amazon needs political capital. It needs the Modi government on its side. It doesn’t want to fight a censorship struggle at this point; another way of putting it is that fighting for freedom-of-expression isn’t at the top of its list of India priorities. In fact, in the worst-case scenario, sticking up for nudity, profanity and cow-meat could cost it quite dearly.

Second, Amazon Prime Video’s entry comes at a time when the political atmosphere in India is definitely more charged and hypersensitive. Cow-slaughter assumed centre-stage in India throughout 2016, with so-called cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks committing a number of acts of violence throughout the country. As Amazon’s streaming service comes just a few months after large-scale protests and counter-protests over the issue of cow meat, it makes good business sense to censor out images of dead cows in Jeremy Clarkson’s TV show.

Ultimately, Amazon simply doesn’t want to upset the increasingly upsettable apple-cart. If self-censorship means viewers can’t watch TV shows as they were meant to be watched or have to put up with blurred out images, it’s a small price to pay.

This is a pity, because online streaming services also serve as the only legitimate way of getting around India’s cinema censor board. When Bengali rap film Gandu was banned in India, Netflix picked it up, allowing Indian viewers to watch it without illegally downloading the movie.

The self-censorship of Amazon and Apple make it clear why the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting isn’t contemplating regulating online content. Streaming companies are doing their job for them.