Our response to the draft Telecom Bill, 2022: Return to sender

Concern(s) and Clause(s)AnalysisSuggestionsConcerns with the consultative processDespite receiving 500 pages worth of responses on the consultation paper “Need for a new legal framework governing Telecommunication in India”, the DoT did not make them publicly available. Due to this lack of transparency, we are unable to understand the reasoning and justification behind the introduction of several changes in the Telecom Bill, 2022. The consultative process followed so far is not commensurate with the ambitious and vital goal to  establish a modern legal framework for the telecom sector. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 1.1 to 1.3 of the brief]The DoT must publicly release all responses. It must also publish a white paper with justifications and reasoning for introducing any changes in the Telecom Bill, 2022, and set up an institutionalised system of broad, multi-city, in-person stakeholder consultation. A Law Commission and/or an independent Standing Committee or expert body must be appointed to look into reforms for the telecommunication sector. Preamble The preamble lacks specific references to, “diversity and plurality of information mediums” and, “freedom of speech and expression” which are vital objectives must be expressly referred to within the preamble. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 2.1 to 2.3 of the brief]The preamble must include a reference to the, “public trust doctrine” that governs the role of the Union Government in public resources allocations where it acts as a custodian or fiduciary.Legislative and jurisdictional overlapOnline communication services, which are already governed under the IT Act, 2000 by the MeitY, are also included under the Telecom Bill, 2022 thus leading to ambiguity about which regulatory framework will be applicable to them. The inclusion of these services under “telecommunication services” in Clause 2(21) causes overlap which results in confusion. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 3.1 to 3.5 of the brief]Legislative and jurisdictional ambiguities must be cleared up in order to avoid overlap of powers between the DoT and MeitY. Online communication services should continue to be governed under the IT Act, 2000.Lack of clarity due to absent definitionsClause 2(21), 24, 51Many new services which have been included in the new definition of “telecommunication services” as contained in Clause 2(21) under the Telecom Bill, 2022 remain undefined. This increases scope for ambiguity and overlap. Terms “public safety”, “national security” and “public emergency” used under Clause 24 remain undefined. These undefined grounds may be misused by the government to intercept communication or to suspend internet services. Lastly, “apprehended civil or criminal proceedings” under Clause 51 is also not defined or elaborated on, thus leading to scope for ambiguity and misuse. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 3.2, 5.1, 7.6, and 7.7 of the brief]To avoid a situation where service providers with multiple functionalities are being dealt with on a case-to-case basis, the DoT must define each service. There must be defined parameters on what constitutes a “public emergency”, “public safety”, and “national security”. The term “apprehended” must either be explained or removed so as to reduce any scope for ambiguity and vagueness. Increased regulatory burden and centralisation of power3(1), 3(2)(a), 7(1), 24(1)(a), 42(1) 46(f), 46(g)Clause 3(2)(a) read with Clause 3(1) and Clause 2(21) allows the Union Government, in exercise of its privilege, to grant any entity a licence for providing telecommunication services. Thus, instead of democratising the telecommunication sector, it centralises more power with itself and introduces overburdening regulations on online communication services. Under Clause 7(1), the decision to suspend, curtail, revoke, and vary a licence rests solely with the Union Government. Clause 42(1) empowers the Union Government to alter any Schedule to the Telecom Bil by a notification, except Schedule 3, to which alteration can be undertaken only through an amendment. This gives the Union Government the power to unilaterally alter language and thus scope of the Telecom Bill, 2022. Clause 24(1)(a) empowers the Union and State governments to take temporary possession of any telecommunication services. In both these cases, there is an absence of any checks and balances. In addition to expanding its own powers for granting licences, the Union Government has also diluted the powers of TRAI through Clause 46(f) and 46(g), thereby concentrating with itself the complete decision making power with respect to prescribing licences to various entities. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 4.1 to 4.10, 4.14 to 4.16, 5.2, 5.3, and 7.1 to 7.3 of the brief]Given the inadequate safeguards that currently exist for users to avail in case of violation of their fundamental rights, such an overbroad licensing regime for online communication service providers  must be reconsidered. Additionally, checks and balances as well as accountability must be introduced with respect to the Union Government’s power to prescribe licences as well as to suspend, revoke, curtail, and vary them. Protections must be included by amending Clause 42(1) to limit the Union Government’s ability to alter the language and scope of the Telecom Bill, 2022. Grounds on which the government may take temporary possession must be defined and a limit on the time for keeping possession must be specified. Lastly, additional safeguards for the user’s privacy must be included. Diluted user safety, and increase in Executive’s surveillance powers Clause 4(7), 4(8), Clause 24(2)(a)Clauses 4(7) and 4(8), which requires licensed entities to “unequivocally identify” all its users, and make such identity available to all recipients of messages sent by such a user, essentially ending anonymity over the internet. Clause 24(2)(a) includes provisions for interception of messages, expanding the scope of surveillance to telecommunication services and breaks existing protocols for the deployment of end-to-end encryption. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 4.11 to 4.13, and 5.4 to 3.10 of the brief]The Telecom Bill, 2022 must include an improved surveillance architecture based on privacy, transparency, and accountability through independent judicial oversight. Safeguards must also be included such that the rights of the user being surveilled is protected. It must also include the learnings accumulated through the Srikrishna Committee Report and the Supreme Court’s decisions in Puttaswamy v Union of India and PUCL v Union of India.Missed opportunity for legal reform on internet shutdownsClause 24(2)(a), 24(2)(b), 33  The Telecom Bill, 2022 represents a missed opportunity for legal reform as it fails to enact any provisions for judicial oversight over the suspension orders or to strengthen the powers of the review committee. Instead, it replicates the provisions of the colonial-era Telegraph Act, 1885. [For a detailed analysis, see paras 5.13 to 3.17 of the brief]Access to the internet must be recognised as a right, rather than a service. Further, certain suggestions made by the Standing Committee on Communication and IT in its report on internet shutdowns such as review of the legal regime for suspension of internet services, establishment of a centralised database of internet shutdown orders, review of the TSTS Rules, diverse composition of the Review Committee, etc. must be accepted.Disproportionate offence Clause 47 and Schedule 3Schedule 3, S. No. 8 penalises a person or entity with a fine of up to 1 lakh INR for use of an unlicensed telecommunication network, infrastructure or network, either knowingly or having reason to believe it to be unlicensed. This is concerning as the ground “having reason to believe so” may be misused and may put the user at a disadvantage as it appears to place the burden on them to prove lack of knowledge about the licence status of any service provider. [For a detailed analysis, see para 7.4 and 7.5 of the brief]Clause 47 includes provisions relating to penalties related to offences listed under Schedule 3. This particular provision under Schedule 3 must be amended to ensure that the user are not penalised for using services provided by an unlicensed service.  

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://internetfreedom.in/our-response-to-the-draft-telecom-bill-2022/