Monday, July 15, 2024

Telecomm bill 2023 Boon or Bane?

Imbalance between security concerns and individual rights

Dr M.Suresh Babu,  President,  Praja Science Vedika

The Telecommunications Bill 2023 passed by the Parliament on Thursday, aims to replace colonial laws such as the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933, which were instruments of control during British rule in India. While the bill is praised for replacing archaic laws, it is suggested that it may provide the government with larger control over telecommunications compared to the colonial laws it seeks to replace. The bill grants the Union government or state governments the authority to take over telecommunication services or networks in cases of public emergency or safety. Officials are given powers to intercept, detain, or not transmit messages from individuals or classes of persons, providing extensive surveillance capabilities for public safety.

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The bill mandates biometric verification of every social media user by telecommunication services, extending the Know Your Customer (KYC) regime across the internet. This provision raises concerns about privacy and anonymity, especially in situations where individuals may want to communicate without revealing their identity. While accredited media professionals are exempted from interception or detention, they would need to register with every telecom service provider, including social media platforms. This could raise concerns about journalistic freedom and privacy, as journalists may be required to disclose their identity to telecom service providers. The bill, along with the push for KYC for internet apps and services, is seen as a move towards eliminating online anonymity.  Concerns are raised about the lack of a conducive environment to challenge these surveillance laws in courts, given the current political landscape.

Privacy and freedom of expression

It’s important to note that the impact of the bill will depend on its final text, implementation details, and any subsequent amendments. Public and stakeholder reactions, as well as legal challenges, may play a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of this legislation and its implications for privacy and freedom of expression in India.  The broad definition of a “message” and the requirement for a new authorization regime for telecommunication services may indeed have significant implications for various digital platforms and services operating within India. The inclusion of a wide range of elements in the definition of a “message” means that the scope of the law extends to various forms of communication, including text, images, sounds, videos, data streams, and more. This expansive definition suggests that the bill aims to cover a broad spectrum of digital communication and content. The introduction of an authorization regime implies that telecommunication services, including social media applications, would need to seek approval to operate in India. This could potentially involve compliance with specific regulations, standards, and guidelines set by the government.

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Given the wide-ranging definition of telecommunication and messages, it appears that the law could be applicable to a variety of internet and digital applications, including popular social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and others.

The requirement for authorization can be seen as a move towards introducing a licensing regime for internet-based services, which could impact how these services operate and interact with users in India. The mention that services not complying with the law could be likely to be blocked or banned in India suggests that non-compliance may have severe consequences, similar to the ban imposed on TikTok in the past. It’s essential to consider the full text of the Telecommunications Bill 2023, along with any ongoing discussions, amendments, or debates in the legislative process, to gain a comprehensive understanding of its provisions and potential impact. Public and industry reactions to the bill can also provide insights into the concerns and implications associated with the proposed legislation. The bill includes provisions for the detention of messages as an alternative to internet shutdowns, reflecting an effort to address issues of communication disruption during critical situations.

Spectrum allocation

Satellite-based internet is explored as an alternative to enhance access in remote areas. The spectrum allocation for satellite-based communication services is expected to be a contentious issue, with debates over whether auctions or administrative allocation should be employed.

The Supreme Court judgment on spectrum allocation is expected to be revisited, indicating potential changes in the legal framework for allocating spectrum.

National Security Provisions

The bill includes provisions allowing the Union government to suspend, remove, or prohibit the use of specified telecommunication equipment and services from countries or individuals, based on national security considerations.  This provision enables the government to block communication and media applications from certain countries or individuals, similar to the banning of TikTok.

Telecom Standards and Geopolitical Considerations

The bill empowers the Union government to dictate telecom standards for equipment and services, encompassing aspects such as encryption, cyber security, and data processing in communication. This provision is crucial in the context of geopolitical controversies, such as concerns about the involvement of Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE in building telecommunications infrastructure. India, like many other countries, may be cautious about using equipment from certain countries to safeguard national security interests.

Control Over Standards for National Security

The government’s ability to dictate telecom standards is viewed as important for national security. This includes considerations related to encryption, which plays a crucial role in protecting the confidentiality of communications.

It’s clear that the bill encompasses a wide range of issues, from addressing internet shutdowns to managing national security concerns related to telecommunication equipment and services. The specific language of the bill, along with ongoing discussions and potential amendments, will be critical in understanding the full scope and implications of these provisions. Stakeholder feedback and legal scrutiny will likely play a crucial role in shaping the final legislation.

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 Encryption standards, government control over communication networks, and the potential implications for freedom of speech and privacy in India.   The bill grants the government the authority to dictate telecom standards, including encryption standards for telecommunication services. Concerns are raised, especially in the context of the Government of India’s interest in breaking encryption on popular messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal.

1.       End-to-End Encryption and Privacy Concerns:

Many internet communication services, including those offered by Meta (formerly Facebook), are adopting end-to-end encryption, enhancing user privacy. The government’s influence over encryption standards could have implications for user privacy and may be perceived as an attempt to gain access to encrypted communications.

2.       Censorship and Surveillance Strategies:

India’s strategy involving censorship and surveillance is noted, emphasizing identification and control of communication networks. The strategy of punishing a few outspoken individuals as a means of discouraging others raises concerns about freedom of speech and expression in the country.

3.       Keyword-Based Banning of Messages:

The Telecommunications Bill introduces provisions for banning messages based on keywords or other characteristics, akin to practices in countries like China.  While the usage of such measures may be limited to scenarios like public emergencies, concerns are raised about the potential for broader totalitarian control if the government decides to assert greater control in the future.

4.       Selective Censorship During Public Emergencies:

The bill’s provisions for message banning during public emergencies, such as protests and riots, may be viewed as a selective form of censorship. While it differs from continuous censorship models in countries like China, the concern remains about the potential expansion of control if exercised beyond emergency situations.

The potential impact of the Telecommunications Bill on privacy, freedom of speech, and the overall landscape of digital communication in India is significant. The specific language of the bill, as well as public and stakeholder responses, will be crucial in determining how these provisions are interpreted and implemented. Legal scrutiny and ongoing public discourse on these matters will likely play a vital role in shaping the future of telecommunications regulations in India.

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Dr. M. Suresh Babu
Dr. M. Suresh Babu
Dr. M. Suresh Babu has been a Professor, Dean and Principal in various engineering colleges and institutions in Hyderabad and Anantapur. His approach to teaching is “For the student, by the student and to the student.” He is associated with several Civil Society Organizations like Praja Science Vedika and Election Watch.



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