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Telecom Bill to regulate internet calling, messaging apps

The final version of the telecommunications (telecom) Bill is likely to regulate internet-based calling and messaging services, such as WhatsApp, Signal, Google Meet, and Telegram, requiring authorisation from the government and mandatory verification of users on their platforms, informed sources.

The new draft of the Bill, in its final stages, has introduced a differentiated regulatory regime for different communication services. This is contrary to the expectation that the final Bill may provide significant relaxations for internet calling and messaging applications, also known as over-the-top (OTT) communication platforms.

“OTTs will still be part of the Bill. Instead of licensing, there will be authorisation. So, the entire concept that it is the exclusive privilege of the government, and then you can authorise someone to provide that service, remains the same. The terms and conditions of authorisation remain unknown,” one of the sources cited above said.

Last year, the government proposed to include internet-based communication services, in-flight and maritime connectivity services, interpersonal communication services, machine-to-machine communication services, and OTT communication services within the ambit of telecom services in the draft Bill floated for public consultation.

The term “OTT communication service” has been replaced by “number-independent services” that are not interconnected with the public switched telephone network, said a person aware of the matter.

The OTT communication platforms hold the view that the telecom Bill is not the right instrument to regulate them, as they are already regulated under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, and the IT Rules, 2021.

“The government has also made it clear that the proposed Digital India Bill has OTTs as one of the categories it intends to regulate. So there are concerns there about potential regulatory overlap,” said an industry source.

The new telecom Bill seeks to replace three laws: the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885; the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933; and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950.

The Bill is in its final stages, and it is not likely to be opened up for fresh consultations.

“In the new differentiated regime, it seemed like it was looking at a less burdensome regime, which is not a licence but a registration authorisation kind of regime, but continuing to believe that it needed some sort of line of sight on who are the users on your platforms from a verification perspective,” said an industry source.

The draft Bill released last year proposed that the government could direct service providers to intercept, detain, and disclose messages sent through these channels in case of an emergency or in the interest of public safety. This clause, the platforms believe, may eliminate the security benefits of end-to-end encryption.

During the consultation process, the government said that user protection would be a key focus of the telecom Bill. The details about whether there will be a fee on a recurring basis as a percentage of adjusted gross revenue will be notified after the consultation process by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on the subject.

Meta, Signal, Zoom, and Google did not respond to requests for comments. Business Standard

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