The government is committed to the growth of online gaming with new rules safeguarding digital citizens, but will not allow hijack of the proposed self-regulatory body, which will operate at arm's length from the industry and have equitable representation, IT Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has said.
SRO or the self-regulatory body, proposed under the draft rules for online gaming, will be an institutional body that will be tasked with registering online gaming intermediaries, and certifying what is a permitted online game and what is not.
The Minister also informed that many of the burning issues around online user harm, safety and trust and safeguarding children from addictive intermediaries or platforms will be addressed in the upcoming Digital India Act, a new legislation that will replace the over two-decade-old Information Technology Act.
As the Centre began an extensive public consultation on draft rules for online gaming, the first set of discussions took place on Wednesday with key stakeholders parents, students and educationists, over concerns, expectations, and suggestions on fine-tuning, quite literally, the 'rules of the game'.
Many educators urged the Minister to ensure that the proposed self-regulatory body "operates at an arm's length from the industry", and pushed for framing of 'objective criteria' so the process is not abused by the industry.
The next round of consultations will be with the online gaming industry, in the coming days.
The Minister assured a packed hall of parents, teachers, children, and young gamers that the SRO will have "equitable representation" by all stakeholders of the industry.
The Minister also clarified that the duties of the SRO as proposed by its board will be approved by the government.
"We are going by the principle of accountability and transparency. The government will certainly not allow the industry to hijack the SRO," the Minister said.
The dialogue and deliberations stretched beyond the allocated time, a clear indication of why the draft rules have swiftly become one of the most discussed issues in the tech sector.
The key suggestions made by participants during the parleys included revisiting the definition of online games, allowing age-appropriate certification of online games, and wider scope for the SRO so it can look at regulating in-game content, and addiction, and psychological issues arising from such games.
Participants were unanimous in highlighting the need for greater awareness around issues related to online gaming.
A young student drew attention to China's limited-hour gaming policy and suggested that India too could look at setting certain limits, albeit less harsh, say 12-13 hours a week.
Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection Of Child Rights (NCPCR), who took part in the discussions, suggested that "institutionalised mechanism", involving prominent institutions or the country's top psychiatric institutes, should be considered while constituting the SRO.
Apart from legitimised sources for downloading games, the rules should also look at regulating other sources like VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) that are used for online games, he said. Kanoongo also spoke in favour of expanding the ambit of the SRO.
Some felt that prominent institutions say NCPCR or National Commission for Women should have a permanent chair on the SRO. The composition of the SRO should establish a balance between economy, protection and invention, they contended.
Teachers from various schools and colleges who were present at the discussion acknowledged the benefits of online gaming for the "holistic development" of children but flagged the "risks" citing rising instances of cyberbullying and harassment of women on social media, as well as the need for tools to regulate time spent on such platforms.
As engagement with online games increases, it would be important to create the right structure to ensure the safety of women, through a robust grievance redressal system, these educators emphasised.
The SRO should be required to submit monthly reports, outlining the details of the nature of grievances received, while the government should constantly monitor the experience of the youth with such platforms, through regular sessions with parents, students and teachers.
Some suggested that high-frequency warning messages be made unskippable and prominent, to remind users, especially children, about the time and money they have already spent on online gaming.
Few also wanted clarity around the implications of the proposed rules for in-game purchases. The Minister clarified that all online financial transactions will require eKYC.
Chandrasekhar made it clear that a self-regulatory organisation is not of the industry but of all online gaming stakeholders.
"Gamer representatives there hold as much importance and sway on SRO's conduct as does NCPCR representative or the NCW representative or gaming industry representative or the government representative," he outlined.
The draft rules on online gaming released by the IT Ministry on January 2, entail safeguards in the form of a self-regulatory body, mandatory know-your-customer norms for verification, and a grievance redressal mechanism, with a prime focus on real money games.
The self-regulatory body will be registered with the IT Ministry and be tasked with registering online games of intermediaries who are its members and who meet certain criteria. Such bodies will also resolve complaints through a grievance redressal mechanism.
Online gaming intermediaries will be required to observe additional due diligence by displaying a registration mark on all online games registered by a self-regulatory body and informing its users regarding policy related to withdrawal or refund of the deposit, manner of determination and distribution of winnings, fees and other charges payable, and KYC procedure for user account registration.
According to the rules, an online game means a game that is offered on the Internet and is accessible by a user through a computer resource if they make a deposit with the expectation of earning winnings.
At the request made during the consultation, the Minister agreed to re-examine this narrow definition.
The government has invited submissions on the draft by January 17 and expects the new online gaming rules to be ready in February.
As per the draft - floated for discussion - the board or governing body of self-regulatory body will have an independent eminent person from the field of online gaming, sports, or entertainment; an individual who represents online game players; an individual from the field of psychology, medicine or consumer education; an individual with practical experience in the field of public policy, public administration, law enforcement or public finance, to be nominated by the government; and an individual from the field of technology.
"We certainly want to make online gaming another aspect of our digital economy where start-ups and entrepreneurs create more and more games and compete with the world's best. At the same time, we have a mandate given to us by the Prime Minister that the internet, as it evolves and grows, must represent a place of trust and safety," the Minister said.
The government is demonstrating, through its policies, that these two objectives are not binary choices, he said.