The proposal to install the chip in STB attracted a barrage of word attacks by opposition led by BJP’s arch rival Congress. They attacked the government, calling the move a serious breach of privacy and the "next stage of surveillance". Randeep Surjewala of Congress alleged that Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani wanted to now know what shows people watch within the four walls of their bedrooms. He also referred to the Modi government as "surveillance sarkar" which had shattered to pieces the right to privacy.
The I&B Ministry had intimated the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI): "It is also proposed to ask DTH operators to install a chip in the new set-top boxes which can give data about channels watched and their duration." In fact, the proposal was part of the ministry's response to the recommendations of the TRAI on issues related to new direct-to-home licenses.
Though a senior official of the ministry said the move is aimed at getting "more authentic" viewership figures for every channel, no one took it seriously. The official said, "This would help advertisers and the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) to spend their advertising expenditure wisely. Only those channels which are widely watched will get promoted."
The DAVP is the nodal agency of the government for advertising by various ministries and its organisations.
What is this chip all about?
The technology is called Return Path Data (RPD). Ten years ago, a similar test was done by TAM Media Research which did trials when digital set-top-boxes had entered the Indian market. In 2016, the agency has launched full-fledged usage of RPD in India with the direct-to-home operator Tata Sky, covering its over 26,000 subscribers. Since then, Tata Sky has been collecting data about its subscribers’ viewership pattern/behaviour using data sourced from the return path (RPD).
Internationally, research organizations like Kantar Media & Rentrack use RPD technology in markets such as US, UK, Australia, South Africa and Italy, etc.
According to Nitin Kamat, VP & RPD Project Head, TAM Media Research, “The technology is basically a response mechanism to understand viewer consumption of content on TV. The process is automated, whereby the STB is designed to build a response process in collecting the data on viewing. In all the processes, including RPD, the respondent's cooperation is always asked for prior to the data collection and usage.”
Kamat is in favour of collecting data only after users’ consent.
TRAI Vs MIB:
The MIB wrote letter to TRAI on 12 March 2018. In response of this letter, the regulator said that since installing a chip was not part of the initial reference from the Ministry, it was not discussed for the recommendations for new DTH licences that the regulator gave in 2014. So, a new issuecould not be part of a “back reference”, and if the Ministry “desires” the regulator’s recommendation on it, it must ask officially.
If we go back into past, in January 2008, the Ministry sought TRAI’s recommendations on various issues relating to television audience measurement. Eight months later, the regulator recommended self-regulation through an industry-led BARC. The regulator also laid down how many households must be empanelled, how they should be rotated, who should own the television viewership assessment body, etc.
In 2012, the MIB again asked TRAI for recommendations. One year later, TRAI reiterated most of its 2008 recommendations, which included this - “A minimum panel size of 20,000 to be implemented within 6 months of the guidelines coming into force. Thereafter, the panel size shall be increased by 10,000 every year until it reaches the figure of 50,000. The panel of homes has to remain representative of all television households in the country.”
Talking about expenses in implementing the new system (if brought by the government), SK Gupta, Secretary, TRAI, said, “We have told MIB to give us a formal reference letter so that we can analyse and do consultation upon the costing and other factors. Till then, we don't know anything about viewership measurement and other related factors.”
Current viewership system:
Critics ask when a system is in place to measure TV viewership, then there should not be any parallel system. At present, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), an industry body that is jointly owned by advertisers, ad agencies, and broadcasting companies, represented by The Indian Society of Advertisers, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the Advertising Agencies Association of India respectively, measures television viewership in the country, using television rating points, or TRPs.
Recently, the BARC India has started the process of partnering with the distributors to gather data through the STBs. The new partners are Airtel DTH and Den Networks, and the agency is in talks with others.
Why Ministry wants accurate data?
As per media sources, MIB’s point of view is that a recorded activity log can lead to a more accurate assessment of viewers and their watching habits, which can be used by advertisers and advertising agencies. Some even say that the I&B Ministry feels that the BARC is underreporting viewership numbers for government owned channel DD, and its data may not be very accurate.
According to BARC, “The agency strictly follows government guidelines and BARC’s systems and processes are periodically audited by global firms.”
Experts say that though data from a basic chip, then, will be quantitatively richer, but not necessarily better qualitatively — which is essential for the advertising industry and, therefore, the broadcasting industry. Also, the proposal is only for set-top boxes of DTH customers, whereas TRAI recommends that TRP measurements should be platform-agnostic, i.e., it should reflect the viewership of cable TV and IPTV, etc., as well.
Experts fear misuse:
Cyber experts too feel bad about the proposal and say it can be misused. Pavan Duggal, the nation's leading cyber law expert, said: "There are a lot of other ways of knowing how people view television, but installing a chip on set-top boxes would amount to violation of right to privacy -- both personal and data privacy -- which has been declared as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court of India."
He added: "Such a chip can be used to monitor a variety of other behaviors. This is especially important in view of the fact that a lot of people nowadays use smart TVs. The chip may even reveal the browsing habits and personal preferences of such users."