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NEW DELHI : Social media and messaging platforms such as Whatsapp, Signal and Telegram, which offer voice or video calling, will fall under the ambit of the draft telecom bill, but for light-touch regulation, telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Friday.

He said such apps were already covered under the Indian Telegraph Act. but now have been specified under the proposed legislation.

“Technology has brought so many changes that the distinction between a voice call and a data call has practically disappeared,"the minister said.

As far as possible, we have to make a light-touch regulatory environment, which does not hamper innovation or introduce a big regulatory burden on anyone, but we will keep the protection of users in focus in the bill." Regulation will be strict only where essential.

The government has proposed to broaden the definition of telecommunication services to include internet-based communication and broadcasting services in the draft telecom bill.

The bill describes these services as “OTT communication services," deploying the term over-the-top that is commonly used to mean video streaming services.

Industry watchers said broadening the definition could mean that messaging and communication platforms would have to take licences, share revenue with the government and be treated under the same rules as telecom service providers.

The minister said the government would consider stakeholders’ input during the consultation process before writing the final bill.

The bill is expected to become law in six to 10 months. “We’re not in a hurry on this," he said in a press conference.

The minister said the bill was the first step toward introducing a comprehensive legal framework in which the next legislation will be the Digital Personal Data Protection bill, followed by the Digital India bill.

Protecting users will be a fundamental element of the bill, the minister said, adding KYC (know your customer) norms for making calls on messaging apps were required to prevent cyber fraud and identify the caller. Where KYC information is not available, for instance, on internet-based calls, the government will hold technical and legal consultations with the industry to find a resolution. “All the technical consultations will be taken up with the industry. We expect a significant drop in cyber fraud with the introduction of this bill," Vaishnaw said.

The bill proposes to give the government the power to intercept messages on internet-powered communication services. The minister said the provision for this existed earlier as well. He, however, clarified that decryption of service would not be sought. “There is no question of decryption."

“The enabling framework for resolving any distress in the sector has to be clearly thought-through and (in) clearly justifiable circumstances. If something happens which is a once-in-a-20-year scenario, the law must be able to give a clear framework," Vaishnaw said.

The bill also states that in case of defaults in payments, the government can defer the payment, convert it into shares, write it off, or provide relief of full or part of the amount.

TV Ramachandran, president of the Broadband India Forum, said that including telecommunication services in OTT services and subjecting them to licencing could stifle the digital ecosystem, kill innovation and affect economic growth.

He said removing Section 11(1) of TRAI Act appeared to be diluting the powers of Trai.

“This could lead to damage of investor confidence and undermining of the independence of the regulatory authority, owing to deletion of provisions which enable proper checks and balances", he added

Minister of state for electronics and information technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar said at a separate event that the Digital India Bill that will soon be referred for consultations with stakeholders, and that the Bill will be more architectural and address specific changes and disruptions in the technology space.

The final Bill should aim to minimise regulatory burden, uncertainty, and overlaps across different laws in the innovation rich value-added services. This will be the key for start-ups and SMEs in the digital space." Ashish Aggarwal, Vice President, Public Policy, NASSCOM.

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