India's long-awaited telecoms bill drops language that would have regulated social media

OTT apps in the clear. Indian citizens, not so much – law proposes registration, surveillance, and shutdown powers

India's government has introduced its Telecommunications Bill – heavily anticipated legislation that will replace laws that were passed before the internet existed and prior to India turning on over a billion mobile phone subscriptions.

One big change from a draft bill released in 2022 is the removal of a reference to over-the-top services – a term used to describe apps like Skype or WhatsApp that provide services like voice calls also offered by conventional telcos.

But the final bill includes a very broad definition of "message": "Any sign, signal, writing, text, image, sound, video, data stream, intelligence or information sent through telecommunication." And it defines "telecommunication" as "Transmission, emission or reception of any messages, by wire, radio, optical or other electro-magnetic systems, whether or not such messages have been subjected to rearrangement, computation or other processes by any means in the course of their transmission, emission or reception."

It's unclear if that combination of wording covers messages sent using over-the-top services, although Indian media reported that the forthcoming Digital India bill will address such services.

That leaves India's 1.4 billion citizens with much to ponder, as the Telecoms Bill includes the following provisions (among others):

  • Telecommunication service providers must identify users with a biometric;
  • Creation of a "telecommunication identifier", defined as "a series of digits, characters and symbols, or a combination thereof, used to identify uniquely a user, a telecommunication service, a telecommunication network, elements of a telecommunication network, telecommunication equipment, or an authorized entity."

The bill also proposes powers that allow authorities to intercept, monitor, or block and search messages on grounds of public safety, emergency, national security, preventing incitement of offences, or public order. Suspending telecom services is also permitted, as is seizing infrastructure.

India's government frequently uses network blackouts to control mass protests, but the legislative grounds for doing so have been challenged. The bill seems to give such outages firmer grounding.

Citizens may appreciate other measures, such as an opt-in regime for messaging, an accompanying Do Not Disturb register that will list people who have opted-out in advance, and a requirement to allow reporting of malware carried in electronic messages.

Another measure will allow India's government to set cyber security standards for telecoms operators – and to determine rules on "collection, analysis and dissemination of traffic data that is generated, transmitted, received or stored in telecommunication networks."

That last quote is one of just seven sections in the 46-page bill felt worthy of an explanation in the text, and adds that "traffic data … means any data generated, transmitted, received or stored in telecommunication networks including data relating to the type, routing, duration or time of a telecommunication."

Which rather seems like India's government wants the ability to develop a deep understanding of what's going on across the nation's networks.

The bill is expected to become law in the new year. ®

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