WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal may get new rule book, Center to start consultations soon

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) believes that communication apps or over-the-top (OTT) players such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal should be regulated, taking into account the security aspect and the need for lawful surveillance. It will shortly begin consultations with the Ministries of Electronics and IT (MeitY) and Ministries of Information and Broadcasting, and will also seek the opinion of the Telecoms Regulator.

Senior DoT officials told ET that regulating apps is now necessary because the technology has changed to the point where misusing it could be disastrous for the country.

“Currently we have no mechanism to control or stop anything that is wreaking havoc on social media,” one of the officials said. “We have to do an autopsy, where not much can be done either. We should be able to control and analyze real-time so misinformation or other things can be stopped.”

He stressed that misinformation spreads so quickly in apps that it will soon become uncontrollable and cause law and order problems. “If some regulations are put in place, social media would be a much safer place,” the official said. The department is discussing the matter internally and will approach ministries soon, officials said.

DoT also plans to seek opinions from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). But it has yet to decide whether to take the issue to the Digital Communications Commission — the highest decision-making body in DoT — first, or seek the regulator’s recommendations directly, officials said.

Broader implications

While the telco department may deal with communication apps that offer similar services to telcos, other social media apps — like Twitter and Facebook — fall under MeitY.

DoT is also considering conducting stakeholder consultations itself, as any move to regulate such apps will have wider implications.

Most industry bodies such as Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), Nasscom and US-India Business Council had opposed any kind of regulatory framework for OTTs when the issue was previously discussed by Trai. Their view is that apps are already regulated by IT law and any further regulation will stifle innovation.

This isn’t the first time the government is considering a move to regulate apps. In November 2018, Trai published a consultation paper entitled “Regulatory Framework for OTT Communication Services”. Following comments from all stakeholders, the regulator ruled out the need to regulate such apps in September 2020, but had said it would regularly review the stance.

“Any hasty government regulation can have a negative impact on the industry as a whole. Accordingly, the Authority believes that market forces can be allowed to react to the situation without requiring regulatory intervention. However, developments need to be monitored and action taken when the time comes,” Trai said in his recommendations.

Same playing field

The end-to-end encryption offered by WhatsApp has long been a bone of contention for the government. While mediation rules dictate that apps must provide information requested by law enforcement agencies, in most cases apps express their inability to do so, citing encryption as the reason.

Telecom operators have long requested that OTT players be regulated as they offer the same communications services as them. While telcos are subject to various licensing and regulatory regimes, OTTPs are not bound by such things, preventing a level playing field.

The triggers for the pros and cons of app regulation have changed over the years. The initial call for regulation was seen as an economic issue – one to address financial arbitrage between telcos and app providers as the former saw an erosion of their revenue from voice services and text messaging.

However, as voice services become virtually free and most telcos’ tariff plans bundle both voice and data without segmentation, calls for OTTP regulation have shifted to issues of security, lawful interception and law enforcement. The telcos then warned the regulator that while they have an obligation to allow lawful interception by security agencies, OTT players are not bound by similar rules.

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