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New Telecom Bill Divides: Telcos Cheer Legislation but Rights Groups Sound Alarm

Take a look at why the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, has left stakeholders with differing opinions.

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Following the introduction of the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, in the Lok Sabha earlier this week, several lawmakers, industry players, civil rights organisations, and policy experts were quick to react to the 46-page legislation.

Proposed as a revamp of the legislative framework for telecommunication in India, the Bill has attracted significant attention for two main reasons:

  • The sweeping powers given to the State that has led to fears of mass surveillance and violation of the right to privacy.

  • The inclusion of online platforms such as WhatsApp under the same regulatory umbrella as telecom companies, though there is still some confusion looming over this aspect of the legislation.

For a complete breakdown of the Bill, click here.

As it awaits the green light from Parliament, take a look at why the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, has left stakeholders with differing opinions.

New Telecom Bill Divides: Telcos Cheer Legislation but Rights Groups Sound Alarm

  1. 1. 'This Bill Needs To Go': Internet Freedom Foundation

    "The Telecommunication Bill, 2023 makes significant departures from its 2022 counterpart [...] We're unsure about the roots of these changes, since the Department of Telecommunications never published the consultation comments," the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said.

    Ambiguous definitions: "The definition of "telecom service" in the 2023 Bill is much shorter & doesn't mention the entities to whom the Act will apply to. The current ambiguous definitions do not make it explicitly clear that internet services (messaging, email, etc.) do not come under its ambit," IFF pointed out.

    The Bill has left details to be prescribed or notified afterwards at 46 different parts.

    No more anonymity? "The 2023 Bill exacerbates privacy invading provisions such as the obligation of any authorised entity, as notified by the Union government, to identify the person to whom it provides telecom services, through use of any verifiable biometric based identification “as may be prescribed,"" IFF said.

    "This, coupled with the uncertainty brought by the phrase “as may be prescribed”, and ambit of the bill, threatens to a user’s ability to stay anonymous online," the digital rights advocacy group argued.

    "The DoT has carried forward the duty imposed on users to not furnish any false information while establishing their identity for availing ‘telecommunication services’. This provision, if applicable to internet services, will have serious implications for anonymity online," it added.

    Quasi-judicial powers: "Moreover, the Bill confers quasi-judicial powers to “authorised officers” appointed by the Union government, including powers of search and seizure of unauthorised telecom equipment, and power to summon information, documents, and records pertaining to legal proceedings under the Bill," IFF further said.

    Expand
  2. 2. 'Disappointing To See': Software Freedom Law Centre

    "It’s disappointing to see that the legislation will not see meaningful debate in the Parliament as there has been insufficient time provided to the MPs to engage with the proposed law," the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) said in its statement after the Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha.

    "The last draft of the Bill had certain challenges – broadly defined terms, wide powers to the Government to shutdown network services, overlap with multiple legislations, lack of procedural safeguards, and extensive surveillance powers, amongst others," it added.

    "Our first glance at the current version of the bill shows that some of these issues still persist," SFLC noted in its statement.

    "We call on the Ministry to hold a more comprehensive consultation process in order to bring meaningful legislation to regulate such an important piece of legislation," the tech legal organisation said.

    Expand
  3. 3. 'Personal Data at Risk': Access Now

    Opposing its passage through an expedited process, international digital rights organisation Access Now called for the Bill to be overhauled in order to protect privacy and free speech.

    Last-minute addition: "The rushed move provides cover for the bill to evade public scrutiny and limit parliament’s ability to debate provisions which threaten open, secure, and unhindered internet access for people in India," Access Now said.

    Row over financial bill: "The bill has been introduced as a financial bill, allowing it to be classed as a Money Bill meaning that the Upper House of Parliament can only make recommendations, and have no power to make any binding amendments," it argued.

    "The bill is regressive as it enhances the government’s colonial-era powers to intercept communications, and shut down the internet. It undermines end-to-end encryption, which is crucial for privacy. The bill must be withdrawn, a new draft put through consultation, and meaningfully deliberated in both Houses of Parliament."
    Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now

    Biometric identification unlawful: "The bill requires telecommunication service providers to force people to submit to “verifiable biometric based identification,” in order to be connected despite the Indian Supreme Court’s 2018 declaration that the mandatory linking of mobile connections with biometric identification is unlawful," Access Now said.

    "India’s weak – and not yet enforced – data protection law means personal data is at risk," it added.

    Legitimises internet shutdowns: "No other country on earth shuts down the internet as much as India, and now we’re looking at the draconian tactic’s legitimisation. India’s Telecommunications Bill must be amended to remove the shutdown power – this is essential for people to exercise their right to internet access," said Access Now's Felicia Anthonio.

    "Without amendments, the bill threatens an open, secure, and accessible internet," Access Now said in its statement.

    OTT regulated? "It appears that a reference to “over-the-top” communications services – like WhatsApp and Signal – has been removed from the bill, but provisions remain broad enough for the government to be able to include these services, opening up the people who use these services to potential privacy abuse," the organisation said.

    Expand
  4. 4. 'Internet Companies Decisively Kept Out': IAMAI

    After the introduction of the Telecom Bill in Lok Sabha, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) sang a similar tune and welcomed the upending legislation.

    Notably, the IAMAI believes that OTT communication services have been excluded from the regulatory purview of the Telecom Bill – something which is still not as clear given the broad and vague definitions of terms like 'telecommunication' or 'message'.

    "IAMAI hails the Bill as progressive especially since internet companies have been decisively kept out of the ambit of the final version of the Bill [...] IAMAI had recommended that the ambit of the Bill be limited to the network layer, thereby excluding the application layer," the tech industry group said.

    For context, the IAMAI represents nearly 600 internet firms and startups.

    "The time-tested distinction between telecom spectrum controlling entities (which are regulated) and spectrum using companies should be maintained as it has been the basis that has allowed innovation and deeper penetration of the internet in India," the association said in a statement.

    It also hailed a provision of the Bill that allows spectrum for satellite communication to be allotted through administrative assignment (not auction). The IAMAI had reportedly batted for the same during the consultation phase of the Bill.

    Expand
  5. 5. 'Threatens Encryption Standards': Internet Society

    The Internet Society, a global non-profit advocacy group, also expressed concern over how the new Telecom Bill affects net neutrality and other issues in India.

    Encryption is key to safety: "The Bill gives the government the power to “notify standards and conformity…of encryption and data processing in telecommunication”, along with the power to intercept messages in the interest of sovereignty and security, which goes undefined. This threatens encryption standards, especially end-to-end encryption – which is the highest form of security available to us," the Internet Society said in its statement to The Quint.

    "There is no technical way in which an end-to-end encrypted environment can continue to be secure while creating access for law enforcement. Encryption is key for our physical safety, India’s financial systems, and national security," the statement read, opposing an encryption backdoor for law enforcement access.

    Yes, Bill applies to OTT: On the confusion around whether the new Telecom Bill applies to OTT platforms, the Internet Society seems to agree that it does. “The Telecommunications Bill, 2023 tabled in the Lok Sabha on 18 December does not make an explicit distinction between traditional telecom services that use spectrum – a scarce, finite public resource – and Internet-based services deployed over the general-purpose Internet," it said.

    "The Bill must contain provisions for distinguishing between traditional telecom services and Internet-based services," the organisation added.

    Regulatory overlap: "This [lack of distinction between OTT and telecom services] fundamentally alters their governance, risking regulatory overreach and overlap, especially as Internet-based services are already governed by the IT Act (soon to be replaced by the Digital India Act) under MeitY," the statement continued.

    Regulatory burden: "The Bill imposes onerous requirements on Internet services, no matter their size – including requiring authorization from the government to continue operations, and mandatory contributions to the Digital Bharat Nidhi. This will frustrate the open, global Internet, which is the backbone of India’s thriving digital economy," the Internet Society argued.

    Expand
  6. 6. 'A Watershed Moment': Vodafone Idea CEO

    "The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, tabled in the parliament, represents a watershed moment in the telecom reform process and reaffirms the commitment of the Government to provide Indian telecom with a future-fit framework that helps achieve the growth aspirations of new India," Vodafone Idea CEO Akshaya Moondra told The Quint.

    "The Bill carries several forward-looking provisions that will help deliver the benefits of digital connectivity to all our citizens. We warmly welcome the rationalization of penalties and the legal enforceability of right of way provisions, a long-standing request of the industry," the statement read.

    "Security of telecom networks is paramount, and the Bill recognizes telecom as critical infrastructure and prescribes punitive consequences for those who damage it," Moondra pointed out.

    Expand
  7. 7. 'Clear Step Forward': Broadcast India Forum

    The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, was hailed by the Broadcast India Forum (BIF) as a giant leap forward for India's digital economy.

    "The bill brings clarity on-power of regulator, spectrum allocation, regulatory framework for OTTs and definition of telecom services," it said.

    It will help proliferate internet access, boost investor confidence, and promote innovation, the policy think tank said. Some of BIF's members include tech bigwigs such as Meta, Google, Netflix, and Zoom as well as major TSPs like BSNL, AT&T, and ACT Fibernet, among others.

    "The bill brings tremendous clarity to the sector even from the overall digital economy point of view. It is a clear step forward for the overall sector, and will boost both domestic and foreign investor confidence. FDI in telecom and associated sectors will grow as a result, and it’ll also work in great benefit for the end-consumers."
    TV Ramachandran, BIF president
    Expand
  8. 8. 'A Considered and Rational Approach': COAI

    The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) hailed the Telecom Bill as a progressive piece of legislation.

    "The Bill focuses on creating robust telecom infrastructure through positive Right of Way provisions to help connect Indians across the country and emphasizing the need for uninterrupted and seamless telecom connectivity to all by limiting the scope for internet shutdowns," COAI said in its statement.

    "Moreover, a considered and rational approach has been taken by providing clarifications and specification of penalties, which is designed to increase industry confidence and ease of doing business," it added.

    "Replacing ‘license’ with ‘authorization’ for providing telecom services would also simplify the overall regulatory landscape for telecom services in our aspiring Digital India," the telecom industry group said.

    "The Bill also aptly underscores the vital need to safeguard National Security by incorporating strict provisions in case of unlawful interception of messages or unauthorized access to the same," it further pointed out.

    Notably, major Indian telcos such as Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio have been listed as COAI's core members, according to its website.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

'This Bill Needs To Go': Internet Freedom Foundation

"The Telecommunication Bill, 2023 makes significant departures from its 2022 counterpart [...] We're unsure about the roots of these changes, since the Department of Telecommunications never published the consultation comments," the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said.

Ambiguous definitions: "The definition of "telecom service" in the 2023 Bill is much shorter & doesn't mention the entities to whom the Act will apply to. The current ambiguous definitions do not make it explicitly clear that internet services (messaging, email, etc.) do not come under its ambit," IFF pointed out.

The Bill has left details to be prescribed or notified afterwards at 46 different parts.

No more anonymity? "The 2023 Bill exacerbates privacy invading provisions such as the obligation of any authorised entity, as notified by the Union government, to identify the person to whom it provides telecom services, through use of any verifiable biometric based identification “as may be prescribed,"" IFF said.

"This, coupled with the uncertainty brought by the phrase “as may be prescribed”, and ambit of the bill, threatens to a user’s ability to stay anonymous online," the digital rights advocacy group argued.

"The DoT has carried forward the duty imposed on users to not furnish any false information while establishing their identity for availing ‘telecommunication services’. This provision, if applicable to internet services, will have serious implications for anonymity online," it added.

Quasi-judicial powers: "Moreover, the Bill confers quasi-judicial powers to “authorised officers” appointed by the Union government, including powers of search and seizure of unauthorised telecom equipment, and power to summon information, documents, and records pertaining to legal proceedings under the Bill," IFF further said.

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'Disappointing To See': Software Freedom Law Centre

"It’s disappointing to see that the legislation will not see meaningful debate in the Parliament as there has been insufficient time provided to the MPs to engage with the proposed law," the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) said in its statement after the Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha.

"The last draft of the Bill had certain challenges – broadly defined terms, wide powers to the Government to shutdown network services, overlap with multiple legislations, lack of procedural safeguards, and extensive surveillance powers, amongst others," it added.

"Our first glance at the current version of the bill shows that some of these issues still persist," SFLC noted in its statement.

"We call on the Ministry to hold a more comprehensive consultation process in order to bring meaningful legislation to regulate such an important piece of legislation," the tech legal organisation said.

0

'Personal Data at Risk': Access Now

Opposing its passage through an expedited process, international digital rights organisation Access Now called for the Bill to be overhauled in order to protect privacy and free speech.

Last-minute addition: "The rushed move provides cover for the bill to evade public scrutiny and limit parliament’s ability to debate provisions which threaten open, secure, and unhindered internet access for people in India," Access Now said.

Row over financial bill: "The bill has been introduced as a financial bill, allowing it to be classed as a Money Bill meaning that the Upper House of Parliament can only make recommendations, and have no power to make any binding amendments," it argued.

"The bill is regressive as it enhances the government’s colonial-era powers to intercept communications, and shut down the internet. It undermines end-to-end encryption, which is crucial for privacy. The bill must be withdrawn, a new draft put through consultation, and meaningfully deliberated in both Houses of Parliament."
Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now

Biometric identification unlawful: "The bill requires telecommunication service providers to force people to submit to “verifiable biometric based identification,” in order to be connected despite the Indian Supreme Court’s 2018 declaration that the mandatory linking of mobile connections with biometric identification is unlawful," Access Now said.

"India’s weak – and not yet enforced – data protection law means personal data is at risk," it added.

Legitimises internet shutdowns: "No other country on earth shuts down the internet as much as India, and now we’re looking at the draconian tactic’s legitimisation. India’s Telecommunications Bill must be amended to remove the shutdown power – this is essential for people to exercise their right to internet access," said Access Now's Felicia Anthonio.

"Without amendments, the bill threatens an open, secure, and accessible internet," Access Now said in its statement.

OTT regulated? "It appears that a reference to “over-the-top” communications services – like WhatsApp and Signal – has been removed from the bill, but provisions remain broad enough for the government to be able to include these services, opening up the people who use these services to potential privacy abuse," the organisation said.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'Internet Companies Decisively Kept Out': IAMAI

After the introduction of the Telecom Bill in Lok Sabha, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) sang a similar tune and welcomed the upending legislation.

Notably, the IAMAI believes that OTT communication services have been excluded from the regulatory purview of the Telecom Bill – something which is still not as clear given the broad and vague definitions of terms like 'telecommunication' or 'message'.

"IAMAI hails the Bill as progressive especially since internet companies have been decisively kept out of the ambit of the final version of the Bill [...] IAMAI had recommended that the ambit of the Bill be limited to the network layer, thereby excluding the application layer," the tech industry group said.

For context, the IAMAI represents nearly 600 internet firms and startups.

"The time-tested distinction between telecom spectrum controlling entities (which are regulated) and spectrum using companies should be maintained as it has been the basis that has allowed innovation and deeper penetration of the internet in India," the association said in a statement.

It also hailed a provision of the Bill that allows spectrum for satellite communication to be allotted through administrative assignment (not auction). The IAMAI had reportedly batted for the same during the consultation phase of the Bill.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'Threatens Encryption Standards': Internet Society

The Internet Society, a global non-profit advocacy group, also expressed concern over how the new Telecom Bill affects net neutrality and other issues in India.

Encryption is key to safety: "The Bill gives the government the power to “notify standards and conformity…of encryption and data processing in telecommunication”, along with the power to intercept messages in the interest of sovereignty and security, which goes undefined. This threatens encryption standards, especially end-to-end encryption – which is the highest form of security available to us," the Internet Society said in its statement to The Quint.

"There is no technical way in which an end-to-end encrypted environment can continue to be secure while creating access for law enforcement. Encryption is key for our physical safety, India’s financial systems, and national security," the statement read, opposing an encryption backdoor for law enforcement access.

Yes, Bill applies to OTT: On the confusion around whether the new Telecom Bill applies to OTT platforms, the Internet Society seems to agree that it does. “The Telecommunications Bill, 2023 tabled in the Lok Sabha on 18 December does not make an explicit distinction between traditional telecom services that use spectrum – a scarce, finite public resource – and Internet-based services deployed over the general-purpose Internet," it said.

"The Bill must contain provisions for distinguishing between traditional telecom services and Internet-based services," the organisation added.

Regulatory overlap: "This [lack of distinction between OTT and telecom services] fundamentally alters their governance, risking regulatory overreach and overlap, especially as Internet-based services are already governed by the IT Act (soon to be replaced by the Digital India Act) under MeitY," the statement continued.

Regulatory burden: "The Bill imposes onerous requirements on Internet services, no matter their size – including requiring authorization from the government to continue operations, and mandatory contributions to the Digital Bharat Nidhi. This will frustrate the open, global Internet, which is the backbone of India’s thriving digital economy," the Internet Society argued.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'A Watershed Moment': Vodafone Idea CEO

"The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, tabled in the parliament, represents a watershed moment in the telecom reform process and reaffirms the commitment of the Government to provide Indian telecom with a future-fit framework that helps achieve the growth aspirations of new India," Vodafone Idea CEO Akshaya Moondra told The Quint.

"The Bill carries several forward-looking provisions that will help deliver the benefits of digital connectivity to all our citizens. We warmly welcome the rationalization of penalties and the legal enforceability of right of way provisions, a long-standing request of the industry," the statement read.

"Security of telecom networks is paramount, and the Bill recognizes telecom as critical infrastructure and prescribes punitive consequences for those who damage it," Moondra pointed out.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'Clear Step Forward': Broadcast India Forum

The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, was hailed by the Broadcast India Forum (BIF) as a giant leap forward for India's digital economy.

"The bill brings clarity on-power of regulator, spectrum allocation, regulatory framework for OTTs and definition of telecom services," it said.

It will help proliferate internet access, boost investor confidence, and promote innovation, the policy think tank said. Some of BIF's members include tech bigwigs such as Meta, Google, Netflix, and Zoom as well as major TSPs like BSNL, AT&T, and ACT Fibernet, among others.

"The bill brings tremendous clarity to the sector even from the overall digital economy point of view. It is a clear step forward for the overall sector, and will boost both domestic and foreign investor confidence. FDI in telecom and associated sectors will grow as a result, and it’ll also work in great benefit for the end-consumers."
TV Ramachandran, BIF president
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'A Considered and Rational Approach': COAI

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) hailed the Telecom Bill as a progressive piece of legislation.

"The Bill focuses on creating robust telecom infrastructure through positive Right of Way provisions to help connect Indians across the country and emphasizing the need for uninterrupted and seamless telecom connectivity to all by limiting the scope for internet shutdowns," COAI said in its statement.

"Moreover, a considered and rational approach has been taken by providing clarifications and specification of penalties, which is designed to increase industry confidence and ease of doing business," it added.

"Replacing ‘license’ with ‘authorization’ for providing telecom services would also simplify the overall regulatory landscape for telecom services in our aspiring Digital India," the telecom industry group said.

"The Bill also aptly underscores the vital need to safeguard National Security by incorporating strict provisions in case of unlawful interception of messages or unauthorized access to the same," it further pointed out.

Notably, major Indian telcos such as Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio have been listed as COAI's core members, according to its website.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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