India

With new Telecom Bill, GoI seeks greater control on WhatsApp, Gmail, Zoom and others

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Representative photo.

The Telecommunications Bill 2023, presented in parliament on December 18, aims to grant extensive powers to the government of India for overseeing and regulating communication networks.

While the bill does not explicitly mention internet-based communication services, the vague definitions employed could potentially impact online platforms such as WhatsApp, Gmail, and Zoom.

Serving as the much-anticipated replacement for the Indian Telegraph Act (1885), the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933), and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act (1950), the new telecom bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Minister of Communications Ashwini Vaishnaw as a money bill.

Compared to its 2022 version, the current bill broadens the definition of telecommunication to include the “transmission, emission, or reception of any messages, by wire, radio, optical, or other electromagnetic systems.”

Experts express concerns about the potential implications for internet-based communication services, pointing to the risk of increased regulatory burdens and redundancy, given that such services already fall under the purview of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and sectoral regulators.

To avoid regulatory ambiguity, experts advocate for clarifying the definition, as the current wording leaves room for internet services to be encompassed in the future.

This expansive definition may also impact innovations in the internet ecosystem and extend telecom licensing to Over-The-Top (OTT) services, potentially hindering innovation, market entry, and increasing business costs.

Notably, concerns intensify due to provisions in the bill related to public emergencies, granting the Centre powers to temporarily control telecom networks in the interest of national security.

During such emergencies, the GoI or state governments may restrict the transmission, interception, detention, or disclosure of messages over telecom services.

Additionally, the bill allows the government to establish rules for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating traffic data stored in telecom networks, enabling the gathering of information on message types, routes, and durations.

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