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Telecommunications Bill, 2023


Why is it in the news?

The Bill and its Key Provisions

About:

  • Its primary objective is to regulate activities related to telecommunication.
  • Repeals the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950.
  • Amends the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act, 1997.

Authorisation for Telecom Activities: Central government approval required for:

1) Providing telecommunication services.

2) Establishing, operating, maintaining, or expanding telecommunications networks.

3) Possessing radio equipment.

  • Existing licenses remain valid for the granted period or five years if unspecified.

Assignment of Spectrum:

  • Spectrum assigned through auction, except for specific uses allocated administratively.
  • Specific uses include national security and defence; disaster management; weather forecasting; transport; satellite services (e.g., DTH and satellite telephony); and BSNL, MTNL, and public broadcasting services.
  • Central government empowered to re-purpose or re-assign any frequency range. May permit sharing, trading, leasing, and surrender of spectrum.

Powers of Interception and Search:

  • Messages or a class of messages between two or more persons may be intercepted, monitored, or blocked on specified grounds. The grounds include security of the state; prevention of incitement of offences and public order.
  • Telecom services may be suspended on similar grounds.
  • Temporary possession of telecom infrastructure allowed during public emergency.
  • Authorized officers may search premises or vehicles for unauthorized telecom network or equipment.

Powers to Specify Standards:

  • Central government empowered to prescribe standards and assessments for telecom equipment, infrastructure, networks, and services.

Right of Way:

  • Facility providers may seek a right of way over public or private property to establish telecom infrastructure.
  • Right of way must be provided on a non-discriminatory and non-exclusive basis to the extent possible.

Protection of Users:

  • Central government may provide measures to protect users, including prior consent to receive specified messages (e.g., advertising messages); creation of Do Not Disturb registers; and mechanism for users to report malware or specified messages.
  • Entities providing telecom services must establish an online mechanism for registration and redressal of grievances.

Appointments to TRAI: Amendments to the TRAI Act allow individuals with

  • At least 30 years of professional experience to serve as the chairperson.
  • At least 25 years of professional experience to serve as members.

Digital Bharat Nidhi:

  • Universal Service Obligation Fund renamed as Digital Bharat Nidhi.
  • Allows the fund’s use for research and development.

Offences and Penalties:

  • Specifies various criminal and civil offences.
  • Providing telecom services without authorization or gaining unauthorized access to a telecom network or data is punishable with imprisonment, fines, or both.
  • Breaching terms and conditions of authorization is punishable with a civil penalty.
  • Possessing unauthorized equipment or using an unauthorized network or service is punishable with a penalty.

Adjudication Process:

  • The central government will appoint an adjudicating officer to conduct inquiries and pass orders against civil offences.
  • The officer must be of the rank of joint secretary and above.
  • Orders of the adjudicating officer may be appealed before the Designated Appeals Committee within 30 days. Committee members will be officers of the rank of at least Additional Secretary.
  • Appeals against the orders of the Committee may be filed with Telecommunications Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) within 30 days, especially concerning the breach of terms and conditions.

 

Concerns Over the Telecommunications Bill, 2023

  • Critics argue that the bill provides a legal framework for mass surveillance and internet shutdowns, raising concerns about individual privacy and freedom.
  • The bill mandates “verifiable biometric-based identification,” potentially compromising user anonymity and affecting whistleblowers and journalists who operate under the cover of anonymity.
  • Users who fail to comply with identification requirements may face hefty penalties ranging from ₹25,000 to ₹1,00,000, potentially discouraging freedom of expression and dissent.
  • Chapter IV grants emergency powers to the Central government in the interest of public safety and national security, allowing temporary possession of telecommunication services and networks during emergencies.
  • Section 19 (f) empowers the government to set standards for encryption and data processing, leading to concerns about breaking encryption and potential misuse of surveillance powers, especially in the context of recent spyware controversies.
  • The bill allows interception of messages to prevent the incitement of offenses and empowers the government to suspend telecommunication services, similar to past instances in Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir, impacting freedom of communication.

 

Criticism from International Organizations and Experts

  • International groups like the Signal Foundation, Internet Freedom Foundation, and Internet Press Institute express concerns that message interception could lead to indiscriminate surveillance, undermining online safety for individuals, businesses, and governments.
  • The bill’s provision allowing the government to notify encryption standards without limitations creates uncertainties for service providers, impacting human rights in the digital age and trust in digital services in the Indian market.
  • The bill’s grant of authority to suspend the internet lacks procedural safeguards recommended by the Supreme Court and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology, potentially impacting human rights and trust in digital services.
  • International organizations and experts demand the withdrawal of the bill in its current form due to the perceived threats to human rights, online safety, and trust in digital services.

 

Status of the Telecom Sector in India

·       The Telecom industry in India is the second largest in the world.

·       The industry boasts a subscriber base of 1.179 billion as of August 2023 (including both wireless and wireline subscribers).

·       It is the 4th largest sector in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows, contributing 6% of the total FDI inflow.

·       India has an overall tele-density of 84.69%, indicating a high level of telecom penetration.

·       The average monthly data consumption per wireless data subscriber has increased significantly, reaching 17.36 GB in March 2023 from 61.66 MB in March 2014.

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