In September, the Narendra Modi government introduced the Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 in an attempt to upgrade the country’s archaic telecommunications laws. Internet rights activists now believe the proposed laws will “kill the internet in India.”
The bill hopes to replace three existing laws: the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885; the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933; and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. A revamp of these laws was long overdue but experts say the new draft bill failed to create fair provisions, and instead, has retained its colonial roots.
The biggest change the bill suggests is the expansion of the definition of telecommunications services to include “over-the-top (OTT) communication services.” This means the new policies would govern online video-streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, among others.
The bill proposes that all these platforms “need to get licenses from the government to operate in India,” Anushka Jain, policy counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, told Rest of World. The bill doesn’t state the requirements to get licensing for communications platforms. “Everybody who’s engaging with the bill right now is engaging with their eyes half-closed, because we don’t know what the licenses will require service providers to do,” Jain said.
While India already leads the world in the number of internet shutdowns — with civil society raising concerns over government overreach — the draft bill has introduced a new provision that bestows unequivocal powers to impose internet suspension.
The new bill also hopes to bring sweeping requirements for platforms to identify their users, and the persons sending and receiving messages. This threatens the end-to-end encryption offered by Signal and WhatsApp that makes everyone safer.
“They will now require all of these platforms to get this license, and if they don’t comply with the licensing requirements … these service providers may end up leaving India,” Jain said. “This bill was an opportunity for [the government] to bring in surveillance reform that they have squandered.”
In certain cases, the new bill has reproduced provisions from the 1885 bill without any consideration for privacy, transparency, and accountability. Digital rights organizations are calling for a withdrawal of the draft telecomms bill. Even Reliance Jio, India’s largest telecomms network owned by Mukesh Ambani, has criticized the bill. The only hope is that given the monumental pushback, the government might reconsider its stance.