The Government of India recently issued a clarification on FDI in digital media sector. The pre-cursor to this clarification is Press Note 4 of 2019 (“Press Note 4”) that allowed up to 26% FDI in entities engaged in uploading/ streaming of news and current affairs through digital media platforms under the Government approval route, similar to the print media sector. We have analysed the implications of the recent clarifications on entities that are engaged in the digital media sector.
Press Note 4 did not provide a definition of “Digital Media” and accordingly there were concerns regarding entities that fall within its ambit. The Government of India therefore issued the “Clarification on FDI Policy for uploading/streaming of news and current affairs through Digital Media” on October 16, 2020 (“Clarification”). The Clarification inter alia provides that Press Note 4 shall apply to the following types of entities registered or located in India:
- digital media entity streaming or uploading news and current affairs on websites, apps or other platforms;
- news agencies which gather, write and distribute or transmit news, whether directly or indirectly, to digital media entities and/or news aggregators; and
- news aggregators, which use software or web applications, that aggregates news content from various sources such as news websites, blogs, podcasts, video blogs, user submitted links, etc., in one location.
The Clarification further requires that the above entities align their FDI to the requirements of Press Note 4, i.e., 26% threshold with government approval, within one year from the date of the Clarification.
Aspects Requiring Further Clarification
Digital media entity
While news agencies and aggregators, whether publishers or suppliers of news content, are clearly covered under paragraphs (b) and (c) above, it is not clear if intermediary platforms operating in the digital domain such as social media, search engines, websites, apps, etc., will be covered. A literal interpretation of paragraph (a) above indicates that they will be covered if they are registered or located in India.
Location Based Uploading or Streaming of Content
On the applicability of FDI norms, the Clarification does not make a distinction between the content being uploaded or streamed from within India and from outside India. The impact of the Clarification on platforms that upload or stream content outside India but are located in India will need to be assessed given the coverage of the regulations extends also to entities located in India.
Approvals for existing businesses: Branch Offices and Companies
The Clarification also states that it is applicable to entities registered or located in India. This includes registered corporates as well as branch offices in India. It is to be examined whether branch offices that may have been previously set up will now be required to seek approval from the Government for their continuous operations of uploading/streaming news and current affairs content on digital platforms.
Similarly, the cases of existing FDI in digital media entities need to be further analysed. As an illustration, the Clarification provides that investee companies are required to align their FDI to 26% with prior approval of the Government. However, it does not stipulate whether the media entities currently below the above threshold that are also engaged in uploading/ streaming of news and current affairs content through digital platforms also require prior approval of the Government within the one-year time period to continue their business operations. Further, whether the conditions relating to management and hiring personnel (set out below) will be immediately applicable to entities with existing FDI as well as branch offices is not clear.
Interface with Up-linking of ‘News & Current Affairs’ TV Channels sector (“News Channels”)
The FDI Policy allows up to 49% FDI with prior approval of the Government in News Channels. However, Press Note 4 read with the Clarification imposes a 26% FDI cap on entities engaged in uploading and streaming of ‘news and current affairs’ over digital platforms. News Channels that are also uploading the same ‘news and current affairs’ content over digital platforms and having foreign holdings of more than 26% will be required to restructure within the one year time period in order to meet the requirements of Press Note 4 or seek clarifications that the prior regulations would continue to applicable specifically for them or seek clarifications that the prior regulations would continue to applicable specifically for them.
Management and Personnel
The Clarification provides that the responsibility for compliance of conditions set out in the FDI Policy and applicable notifications rests on the investee company in India. Some of the additional restrictive conditions relating to management and hiring of personnel include:
- The majority of the directors on the Board of the company are required to be Indian citizens;
- The Chief Executive Officer is required to be an Indian citizen;
- The investee company is required to obtain security clearance of all foreign personnel likely to be deployed for more than sixty (60) days in a year by way of appointment, contract or consultancy or in any other capacity for functioning of the company prior to their engagement. If the security clearance of any foreign personnel is denied or withdrawn for any reason, the investee company is required to ensure that the concerned person resigns or his services are terminated forthwith, upon receiving such directives from the Government.
Press Note 4 was perceived as a progressive liberalisation of the digital media sector. However, the recent notification, while attempting to clarify certain aspects, has in effect imposed additional restrictions. It needs to be seen whether the sector attracts further investment or will be looked upon as a highly regulated and restrictive business to invest and operate from India.