MTRCB wants to ‘regulate’ Netflix and other streaming sites…but for what?

This happens, unsurprisingly, in the middle of the pandemic.

MTRCB wants to 'regulate' Netflix and other streaming sites...but for what?
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The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board insists on the regulation of streaming sites like Netflix, iflix and others. But to what sensible end, exactly?

Jonathan Presquito, chief legal counsel of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), grabbed headlines after attending the hearing of Senate Bill 1591 or Internet Transactions Act. He confirmed that the MTRCB is asserting its jurisdiction over and seeking to regulate the video content of streaming sites like Netflix, iflix, and others. Presquito added, “It’s a matter of implementation, and there is just a hanging provision pertaining to legislation which we cannot resolve.”

Resistance came swiftly as legislators and netizens opposed the plans. Senator Grace Poe, a former MTRCB chairperson, called it unrealistic and impractical. Senator Franklin Drilon pointed out the agency’s inability to “evolve and rise above its martial law origins” into a self-regulation driver in the industry. Senator Gatchalian, the chief architect of Senate Bill 1591, clarified the bill is limited to the buying and selling of video on demand and does not concern content ratings. 

The Director’s Guild of the Philippine (DGPI) issued a statement denouncing the proposal and underscored the built-in classifications and parental controls in most streaming sites. Echoing Drilon, the group called on the Senate to “encourage the growth of the local film industry and the viewing public by preserving freedom of expression and self-regulation.”

DGPI protests MTRCB regulation of streaming sitesThis week, it was reported that Jonathan Presquito, the Legal Affairs…

Posted by Directors' Guild of the Philippines, Inc. – DGPI on Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Palace, in an unusual act of prudence, advised the Board to listen to the critics. Even the House Speaker remembered bipartisanship and released a forceful statement against the proposal.

Despite the public backlash, the Board promised to push through. “Not because it’s impractical we’re not going to pursue what is written in the law,” MTRCB Chairperson Maria Rachel Arenas explained. She underscored the need for streaming content to conform to their classification and the culture of the Philippines. Incredibly, she admitted, “Hindi namin talaga mare-review lahat that’s why we encourage self-regulation, and then we’re going to do strict post-monitoring.” The admission is enough reason to terminate the plan, but of course, this is the trademark of the best and the brightest. 

The proposal to regulate over-the-top media service (or OTT) is impossible and unjustified. Based on the latest expenditure program, the Board has around 60 appointed positions and 47 filled positions. One need not scrutinize the budget further and conclude that it lacks logistics to monitor all streaming content — even if it marshals all deputized members. Once the proposal passes, all OTT sites stand to fall under the jurisdiction of the Board. But the Internet is a Russian nest doll of complicated issues. Some social networking sites like Facebook offers original content — are these sites also subject to regulation? In the spirit of kindness, let us not ask if the Board intends to tackle virtual private networks. 

MTRCB wants to 'regulate' Netflix and other streaming sites...but for what?
Netflix also screens Filipino films and original series // photo via Clari Says.

Assuming the Board indeed aims to promote self-regulation, streaming sites have actual sophisticated mechanisms in place. Consider Netflix: aside from a default Kids Profile, its parental control includes a four-digit profile lock, a customizable profile hub, and access to viewing activities. The ubiquitous color-coded content rating (G, PG, SPG) implemented back in 2011 cannot hold a candle to customizable parental controls in terms of self-regulation. Though other streaming sites need to improve theirs, parents can still manage household Internet access.

The point is: taming a unique beast like the Internet is futile.  

Curious minds therefore could not help but speculate if the real reason behind the proposal is censorship. The Board has been an institutionalized tool for censorship since its inception in 1985 after then-President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1986. As its name suggests, it is mandated to regulate and classify motion pictures, television programs, and publicity materials. The legal intention of the decree limits its jurisdiction to movies and television. To regulate OTT sites, the Board needs an updated legal mechanism. The progressive solution, though, is to abolish the de facto censorship body altogether. 

MTRCB wants to 'regulate' Netflix and other streaming sites...but for what?

Monitoring fees is another angle that needs discussion. Based on the MTRCB Memorandum Circular No. 12-2013 (schedule of review and classification charges), review fees for movie theatrical releases range from Php1,150 to Php12,550, and for television programs, Php500 to Php2,100. Netflix released a mindboggling 371 titles of original content in 2019 — imagine the revenue the Board stands to gain. 

Suppression has been the hallmark of the current administration to problems it could not control or understand. The proposal to regulate streaming content is irrelevant, impractical, and impossible. Let the people make decisions to empower the public and encourage responsible viewership. The Internet poses other dangers, including the spread of disinformation, and the solution to it is not regulation, but rather, education. Besides, other pressing matters require government presence, such as the pandemic response to COVID-19.

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