Lok Sabha clears new telecom bill to replace colonial-era law

Hindustan Times, December 21, 2023

The bill allows for administrative allocation of satellite spectrum, replaces the licensing regime for telecommunication service providers with an authorisation regime, cements measures to protect users in the law, and provides a four-tiered structure for dispute resolution.

“The bill [seeks] to amend and consolidate the law relating to development, expansion and operation of telecommunication services and telecommunication networks; assignment of spectrum; and for connected matters,” communications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Monday while introducing the Bill.

The bill will replace the Indian Telegraph Act (1885) and the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933). Industry bodies such as the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Broadband India Forum (BIF) welcomed the bill, but some MPs and privacy and technology activists expressed concern on three main fronts: inclusion of “online services” including OTT messaging ones; stringent user verification norms; and fears of heightened surveillance.

Opening the discussions on Wednesday, Vaishnaw said it was a historic day when three laws that had a “colonial mindset” are being scrapped – a reference to the criminal code bills passed by the Lower House earlier in the day. “In the same way, one colonial bill is the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which is being repealed with today’s requirements, with today’s economic needs and with today’s aspirations in mind,” he said.

Opposition members posted questions on some of the provisions of the bill.“Interception of communication in the interest of national security is very much essential but at the same time, privacy of citizens should also be taken care of,” Sanjeev Kumar Singari, Lok Sabha MP from YSRCP, said in the house.

Biju Janata Dal’s Bhartruhari Mahtab asked Vaishnaw to clarify what “temporary” and “possession” would mean when the government is allowed to take “temporary possession of the telecom network”.

“The bill allows government to take over telecom services and intercept messages in interest of national security and in case of emergencies. I understand [the need for that] … Perhaps the minister can tell us how it will be decided, at what level will it be decided, and under what law will it be decided,” Mahtab said.

“With the mention of ‘data stream’ in the definition of ‘message’, one can suppose that messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram, email services like Gmail, Zoom and cloud services could come under telecom regulation. If these services are regulated under this Bill, ‘same rules, same service’ can be implemented. This needs clarification from the honourable minister,” Singari said.

Shiv Sena’s Shrirang Appa Barne asked for clarification about inclusion of services like WhatsApp and Signal. “We need a clarification from the minister on that as the door to include online services has been kept open,” he saidVaishnaw gave a general overview of the law in response, summarising its benefits in 10 points.

First, he said the new law will improve user protection against KYC frauds. “Second is right of way reforms. We needed to reform the right of way given the speed at which the telecom industry has been growing and services are being adopted. We have done so by involving state governments and district authorities,” he said.

Third, is on licenses – more than 100 have been replaced with a single authorisation, he added. “Fourth is spectrum reforms. In the 1885 Act, spectrum was not even spoken about. The new law takes into account Supreme Court judgements and presidential references from Constitutional benches,” he said.

The fifth highlight, he said, was the digital-by-design, four-tier dispute resolution mechanism.“Sixth, we have now made a legal framework for standards for cybersecurity and protection of telecom network,” he said. He identified the bill’s provisions on interception as the seventh point, saying its principles and “checks and balances” stemmed from the 1996 PUCL case judgment.

The other key points of the new law pertained with the industry and India’s position as an exporter of technology, identifying the eighth important point Digital Bharat Nidhi (to develop new technologies and products) and the ninth as the regulatory sandbox provisions for innovation.

“Tenth, and the most important issue, is that the industry provides employment to nearly four million people and this Bill takes care that there are no disruptions,” he said.

Internet Society, in a statement after the passage of the bill, said, “The Bill must contain provisions for distinguishing between traditional telecom services and Internet-based services.”

The lack of differentiation “fundamentally alters their governance, risking regulatory overreach and overlap”.

The organisation also said that the bill threatens end-to-end encryption. Earlier in the day, telecom secretary Neeraj Mittal briefed parliamentarians about the bill. He explained what the bill was about and how the spectrum worked. In response to a question, he also explained why satellite spectrum could not be auctioned.

“For activities such as research and development, as envisioned through the proposed regulatory sandbox, participants may require access only for a short duration. Holding auctions is not feasible in such cases,” he said as an illustration. Mittal clarified that the government taking temporary control of telecom services and networks was not a new provision, and that the interception provision was also borrowed from the extant law.

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