On 21st September 2022, the Department of Telecommunications (“DoT”) released the Draft Telecommunication Bill, 2022 for feedback and public comments. The draft is based on the consultation paper on ‘Need for a new legal framework governing Telecommunication in India’ which was published by the DoT in July 2022. The proposal aims to replace three laws: the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950.
CCG submitted its comments on the Bill, highlighting its feedback and key concerns. The comments were authored by Aishwarya Giridhar, Priyanshi Dixit, Sidharth Deb, reviewed and edited by Jhalak M. Kakkar, Shashank Mohan, Sachin Dhawan with research help from Shreenandini Mukhopadhyay and Shreya Parashar.
CCG’s key comments on the Government of India’s proposals under the Bill are divided into 6 parts –
Exclude digital/ internet based services from telecommunication regulation
The Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”) exclusively deals with issues pertaining to the internet and digital platforms, and provides corresponding regulation and user safeguards. The Bill’s proposed inclusion of digital services within telecommunications law may create a parallel legal regime and regulatory confusion that hinders innovation and the ease of doing business. Additionally, this Bill would likely subsist in parallel to the forthcoming Digital India Act which is under development at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”). Therefore, we propose that the telecommunication regulation in India should not include digital services as it would create dual compliances for services which will negatively impact India’s overall internet ecosystem.
Revisit the Premise of Licensing Internet Based Digital and Software Services
Telecom Service Providers (“TSPs”) require a license to operate in the market since their operations are dependent on the use of spectrum, which is a limited natural resource. It is based on this scarcity that the Government grants exclusive licenses to access and use spectrum to select service providers. The Government’s privilege in this regard emerges from spectrum scarcity and the public trust doctrines. Conversely, internet based services do not function with the same scarcities and resource requirements as TSPs. Instead, they offer their services over the internet/ telecom network infrastructure. The internet is an ecosystem of abundance and thus digital service providers need not contend with the same infrastructural scarcities as network operators. Since OTTs services do not require exclusive allocation of a scarce public resource like spectrum, imposing strict licensing requirements on them would hinder innovation, consumer choice and user accessibility.
The Bill Should Avoid One Size Fits All Regulation
The Bill in its current form deploys overbroad definitions for several terms including “telecommunication services” and “message”. This particular definition will envelope all OTT communication services, data communication services, email, and other digital platforms within a common licensing regime as all telecom services. Aside from compromising the principle of legal certainty, this overbroad definition contributes to a one size fits all regulatory approach for both carriage and content providers. Such a broad approach is antithetical to the internet’s innate characteristics and heterogeneities across its network stack. It is also inconsistent with the growing international and domestic consensus that the internet requires differential regulations which are curated to the features and contextual harms which are native to specific types of platforms and services.
The Bill’s Interception Proposals are Overbroad and may Violate Constitutional Rights
The Bill allows the State to order the interception of messages transmitted over telecommunication services or networks in specific situations. The broad definition in the Bill allows this provision to broadly apply to all messages communicated over all digital services, which may amount to a disproportionate restriction on users’ right to privacy. Under Indian jurisprudence, measures restricting privacy must: (a) be provided by law; (b) pursue a legitimate aim and be necessary in a democratic society; (c) be proportionate to the need for the interference with the right to privacy; and (d) contain procedural safeguards to prevent against abuse. Existing provisions permitting interception must be re-examined for conformity with these standards and recent Supreme Court jurisprudence. Additionally, interception provisions in the Bill overlap with those in the IT Act and risks creating a parallel regulatory regime over digital services.
The Bill’s ID Verification Proposals may Violate Constitutional Rights to Privacy and Free Expression
The Bill requires service providers to identify users of their services, and also requires the identity of persons sending messages over telecommunication services to be made available to the recipient. Although these measures may have sought to target cyber-fraud, they will also serve to effectively remove anonymity in online communications. Online anonymity and encrypted services can however play a key role in protecting user privacy and the right to free expression, and mandated identity verification systems can significantly restrict these rights, particularly for minorities and vulnerable populations.
Provisions relating to the Suspension of Telecommunications Services Would Restrict the Right to Free Expression
The Bill authorises the State to direct the suspension of communications transmitted or received by telecommunication networks. It allows for the suspension of ‘telecommunication services’, which would include all digital services, along with phone calls, text messaging, etc. This provision would expand the ambit of suspension powers to allow states to restrict or blacklist specific services, in addition to restricting access to the internet as a whole. The internet plays a key role in exercising fundamental rights such as free expression and education, and in accessing essential services. Wide powers to restrict access to the internet as a whole, as well as specific services can therefore significantly restrict the fundamental rights of users.
You can read CCG’s full submission to the DoT here.