Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022

Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022

CONTEXT:

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) under the Ministry of Communications has released the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 to deal with new regulatory issues with the advent of OTT platforms. The bill seeks to do away with British-era laws governing the telecom sector and bring various changes to the governing of the telecom sector in India.

THE NEED FOR A NEW ACT

India is the world’s second-largest telecommunications market with a subscriber base of 1.20 billion. In 2021, the Government allowed 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) via the automatic route in the telecom sector which was previously capped at 49% . The sector is a key river of economic growth and social development.

Hence, it is imperative to secure affordability and accessibility of telecommunication services. It is also necessary to ensure that the communication is safe and secure in line with Right to Privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution. Moreover, spectrum benign a public good and hence it is the responsibility of the government to ensure it’s proper management

KEY FEATURES OF THE BILL

  1. Consolidation of old, outdated laws: The bill consolidates Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950, which presently govern the telecom sector. These laws have failed to keep pace with the advancement of technology.
  2. Bringing OTT in the ambit of “telecommunication services”: Over-the-top communication services like WhatsApp, and Telegram have been included in the definition of telecommunication services. This would effectively mean that OTT platforms would also require a license to operate the same way that telecom companies do.
  3. Permits interception of information by authorized Government Official: The bill allows information transmitted and received over telecommunication services to be intercepted by a government official in the interest of sovereignty, integrity or security of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or for preventing incitement to an offence.
  4. Dilution of powers of TRAI: The bill dilutes certain provisions of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act (TRAI Act). For example, presently, the telecom department has to obtain TRAI’s views before issuing a new license to a service provider which will not be required with the passage of this bill. TRAI will also no longer be able to request the government to furnish information in order to make recommendations. Further, the Department of Telecommunication had to earlier send matters back for reconsideration of TRAI if it didn’t agree with it. The bill does away with this provision. 
  5. Reversion of control of Spectrum to Center in case of insolvency: If a telecom entity in possession of spectrum undergoes bankruptcy or insolvency, the assigned spectrum will go back to Center’s control. 
  6. Extraordinary powers to Center:  Center can defer, convert into equity, waive off dues or grant relief to any licensee under extraordinary circumstances.
  7.  Regulatory Sandbox: The Central Government may create a Regulatory Sandbox for testing of products and services in a controlled environment under the supervision of the Central Government. This will encourage innovation and development in the field of telecommunication.
  8. Revealing identity of sender to stop Harassment and cyber frauds: The identity of person sending a message by use of telecom services shall be made available to the user receiving the message 

WAY AHEAD

While the reforms were much needed to keep up with the rapidly evolving digital ecosystem affecting the telecom sector, some concerns need to be addressed:

  • The bill may affect the role of TRAI as a watchdog, TRAI which has been an independent body so far and has statutory backing. The proposed provisions might dilute its role to oversee the telecom sector and affect its autonomy. 
  • There are various messaging platforms that provide encrypted services. The bill gives wide power to the government to intercept despite the encryption feature. Encryption is done to protect the privacy of users. The discretionary powers to intercept need to be exercised cautiously while abiding by principles of necessity and proportionality given by the Puttaswamy judgment.

There is a need to resolve the bottlenecks of the telecom sector which has led to large unpaid dues adding to the burden on the government’s financial liabilities. But this needs to be done while respecting privacy of individuals and establishing strong oversight by independent regulatory bodies to have a win- win scenario.

SOURCES

https://bit.ly/3StS8FB (The Indian Express)(Draft Bill moves to regulate Internet-based, OTT telecom services)

https://bit.ly/3dDJEwO (The Indian Express)(What is the draft Telecom Bill, and what changes it aims to bring)

https://bit.ly/3xOHHof (The hindu) (Draft telecom bill proposes waiving off dues, licensing of OTT apps)

Plutus IAS current affairs eng med 24th Sep 2022

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