Home / Opinion / Views /  Telecom proposals must serve to empower users

The government’s draft telecommunications bill, 2022, is meant to be a revamp of decades-old legislation for contemporary times. As mobile phones are the main gateway to the internet for most Indians and telecom links are the great enabler of Digital India, how Indian law treats this sector is critically important. Rules that are too vague can lead to havoc, as this sector bears witness, but regulation that is too tight could suffocate a cyber boom in our economy. The bill seeks to give legal backing to spectrum allocation via auctions, except for use by the government in areas such as defence, law enforcement, transport and backhaul, among others. For the most part, its stated emphasis is on user protection, which is a laudable aim in today’s times. For this, the Centre has sought to club online chat and over-the-top (OTT) services along with many others into a broad category of telecom services. Just like how broadcast TV ended up under an 1885 telegraph act (which this bill is expected to subsume), this classification will draw all apps that use telecom networks to keep users in touch under a new licence regime. According to telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, this will imply only light-touch regulation. By the compliance burden that apps are now staring at, however, it looks like a case of regulatory overkill.

Just as a colonial-era law for wire telegraphy applied to broadcast TV was a legal stretch that saw the spirit of its control motive triumph over the call for business freedom, an elastic definition of ‘telecom services’ today reveals an itchy-finger regulatory bent that harks back to India’s command economy. If telecom is still a heavily regulated market post-1991, it is not just for national security, but for its entry barriers in the form of licences, which are required because the sharing of a national resource like airwaves doesn’t permit limitless operators. Since this peculiarity of limited rivalry does not apply to online markets, why should they not be allowed to function freely? Security concerns seem to dominate the bill’s proposals, as visible in its know-your-customer norms for various apps (even MS Teams or Zoom) and stiff penalties for misrepresentation of identity. For all the safety this promises, it also hints at enlarged scope for state surveillance, which we must disallow without a privacy shield in place that’s duly loaded in defence of citizens rather than state agencies. How will user data be kept safe if online exchanges are routinely tagged by identity? Lack of clarity on our vulnerability to spyware makes this question all the more relevant.

It’s not as if online markets do not fail. Where open competition fails to act as a corrective, regulation suggests itself. But we must beware oversight that’s too tight. Many digital apps are already subject to information technology (IT) rules, under which guidelines were issued for intermediaries last year that need easing as a new Digital India bill is drafted. If the Centre wants a comprehensive legal framework, as Vaishnaw said, then it would make sense to publish all proposals—IT, privacy, telecom and digital services—together for joint scrutiny and analysis. Stakeholders in our digital future must not be left confused about how India proposes to govern a sector at the core of our online lives and how deep into our handsets the rules may reach. Let India’s policy agenda be guided by how best to empower people. A proposed tweak of the telecom regulatory authority’s power, for example, will have to pass that test. But then, so would much else in this big-sweep bill.

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