Draft Telecom Bill '22 - What is the scope of this bill?

I tried to read the proposed Telecom Bill '22 - and ran into a something weird in the first few pages.

Section 3 (1) states " The Central Government shall have the exclusive privilege, within India, to: (a) provide telecommunication services;" and then sub-licence this priviledge to other parties.

Where telecommunication services is defined as : “telecommunication services" means service of any description (including broadcasting services, electronic mail, voice mail, voice, video and data communication services, audiotex services, videotex services, fixed and mobile services, internet and broadband services, satellite based communication services, internet based communication services, in-flight and maritime connectivity services, interpersonal communications services, machine to machine communication services, over-the-top (OTT) communication services) which is made available to users by telecommunication, and includes any other service that the Central Government may notify to be telecommunication services;

service of any description which is made available to users by telecommunication

Covers basically all internet services - which is nothing but computer-to-computer communication over telecom networks.

This probably means that every website is a “telecom service” . There are millions of telecom services delivered in India form India and elsewhere, many of these are encrypted and unknown. It is unclear how and why the Central Government wishes to have exclusive privilege over these services, which seems nearly impossible to implement.

I am not sure if I am reading this wrong, but this seems very a expansive (and thoughtless?) piece of legislation.

Can anyone confirm if I am reading this wrong?

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Reconfirmed by this article: https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/mumbai-news/the-dangers-of-policy-by-analogue-in-the-draft-indian-telecommunication-bill-2022-101668369266574.html?utm_source=twitter

The second clause of the bill goes into definitions. In Clause 2.21 it defines “telecommunication services” as including “electronic mail, voice mail, voice, video and data communication services” as well as all “internet-based communication services”, and “interpersonal communications services, machine to machine communication services”. Then in Clause 3.2 it asserts that “The Central Government may exercise its privilege under sub-section (1) by granting to any entity … license for providing telecommunication services”.

Combining these two clauses in the bill, the straightforward implication is that all machine-to-machine communications, and this may include everything from email, social media, forums (like Reddit), independent servers (Discord etc), VOIP services like Skype/Zoom, are clubbed together with dissimilar entities like mobile providers and broadband services into the larger category of telecommunication services for which companies providing these services or infrastructure will have to apply for licences. This is an unprecedented overreach and would radically change the nature of the digital environment in India. If any machine-to-machine communication requires a licence, this would be applicable not just to company provided services like email or WhatsApp but also to owners of blogs or personal webpages with comment sections.

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Hey, I kept putting of reading the bill because of some work, but I generally agree with your concerns.

Here’s what I could understand and what it means for people like us. Do correct if I state something wrong, as this is just a product of my understanding of the bill, and what it will result in.

Laws to be replaced:

  • Indian Telegraph Act, 1885
  • Wireless telegraphy Act, 1933
  • Telegraph Wires Act, 1950

Tl;Dr
The bill proposes to bring messaging apps under licensing purview, provides power to ban internet services, and makes KYC mandatory for user verification.
Esssentially, we might need to access Whatsapp, Facetime, Telegram etc, as these “Apps” which are being categorized into telecom services might need to purchase licenses.

Current Status

Carriage

Carriage is the highway which allows you to go from one point to the other, in the telecom context, the telecom infrastructure, towers, cables etc. which carry bytes from one machine to another.

Content

Content is what rides on this carriage, like a truck which rides on the highway. A message you send over Whatsapp is the content, delivered through the internet.
Netflix creates and curates content, which it serves the user via the internet. User pays Netflix for the content, and let’s say Jio for the internet.

Barrier to Entry

Spectrum for the carriage in India is highly regulated. An entity has to bid at an auction hosted by the government, purchase it and only then they can enter the business of telecommunication.

When it comes to content, the deomcratization of innovation can’t even be mapped on the same scale as the pace of changes in telecom.
If a developer spots a particular problem, they can build an app, release it fopr free or put it up on an app marketplace, and let the users pay for it.

Supposed Problems:

Barrier to entry in the content (delivering apps etc) is miniscule of the barrier in telecommunications. So instead of decreasing the barrier in thelecommunications (ignoring if that is a good idea or not), govt. wants to increase barrier in the “App Space”.

App Space: anything that works by communicating between computers is being categorized under telecommunication.

Given Reasons:

Due to encryption in apps such as whatsapp and telegram, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to monitor instances which are potential threats to national security. The government is unable to legally summon that data as these apps do not fall under the licensed telecommunications services.

Existing Law is Sufficient:

The IT Act already has provisions to enable lawful interception and monitoring of messages through digial communication applications. Under section 69 of the IT Act, the central or state government may issue directions to do so in the interest of preserving, among other things, national security and public order. Moreover, rule 4 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) 2021 requires digital communication applications with 50 Lakh users or more to enable identification of those sending messages on their platforms.

Good Parts?

If you have entered your email or mobile number once on a random website in order to gain access to an article, document, or any resource, it is common knowledge that the entered data was shared as one recieves a myriad of messages from other entities, we never shared our contact to.
The Draft Bill also proposes that the Identity of the personm communicating through any form of “telecommunication” service will be available to the reciever. (Govt. buiilt truecaller???). Since its scope is telecommunication services, it applies to Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal as well. A person who doesn’t complete the KYC will be liable to a INR 50,000 fine and may be banned from those platforms.

Commercial Communications which are advertising and promotional in nature should be made only with the prior consent of a Subscriber.

Power of the Center in dealing with Spectrum and telecom companies…

  • The Department of Telecommunications has proposed that if an entity in possession of telecom spectrum goes through insolvency or bankruptcy, the assign spectrum will return to the centre. This clears the air whether a financially distressed entity who defaults on their obligations, their spectrum will go to the bank who financed the entity, or to the governemnt.
  • The draft bill also accords the Centre powers to deferm, convert into equity, write off or grant relief to any licensee under extraordinary circumstances, including financial stress, consumer interest, and maintaining competiton, among other things.

Internet Shutdowns

  • A specific provision enables the government to suspend internet, but since these services being suspended will be under telecommunications license, some workaround saying it was crucial for national security to shutdown those services, and they run on the internet, we need the power to shutdown the internet.

Thoughts

Lower barrier of entry to shipping apps and software not requiring license, must not be met with raising the that barrier. If the govt wants to level the playing field in telecommunication (present definition, not proposed), it must lower the barrier of entry there. For eg; Mint Mobile in the US is a carrier that utilises the leftover bandwidth of big service providers such as AT&T and Verizon, to offer mobile plans. Since it only leases/utilises the prebuilt framework or pre-allotted spectrum, its users need not pay the company the prices at which company will recoup its infrastructure costs.

I understand this isn’t ideal for the legacy companies that set up the infra at their own cost, but to each his own, and if the company is fine with renting out its unused bandwidth, why not? This is how AWS started in the first place.

Regarding the license proposal, entities with internet based apps will have to purchase the licenses in the 100s of crores, that cost will be passed on to the consumers.
Where do we draw the line after this?
If tomorrow the government argues that the Play Store and the App Store run on the “internet” i.e. the carriage of the telecom operators and internet providers, they also requiure a license to operate, then the free apps available to download on these platform might also get paywalled as users may have to pay to access the appstore, which is another issue.
Further, in paltforms like iOS which prevents the sideloading of apps to the common user, and there are intricate steps involved which require technical know-how, what other alternative is there to install applications?

Advertising

Modern internet and social media platforms mine data, and attach that to “Advertising IDs” which is nothing but a long alphnumeric string. This is their bread and butter. I am yet to read the Personal Data Protection and Privacy Bill, but as far as this bill goes, will the “Advertising” service of the Big-Tech, which is the reason why most services and platforms are not paywalled, will it also require a separate license to run, as it is also running on top of the internet, and is a part of the application offering, just not to the consumer but to the advertiser. Does this bill expand on the rights of the government to prevent their citizens from being profiled and fed with ads?

I have not yet read the Data Protection and Privacy bill, so my comments on this are half-baked, but do provoke some thought…
After reading the other bill, I will edit this and post a link to the continutaion of this aspect on another post on the forum.

Announcement Link

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