Meta Concerned Over Telecom Bill’s Ambiguities, Fears Government Regulation of OTT Apps: Report

The Parliament passed the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, which seeks to amend the laws relating to telecommunication services and networks, on Thursday. The bill, introduced by Communications, Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on December 13, would allow for the government to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security. While the bill would hand the Indian government considerable powers in the telecom sector, Facebook parent Meta is reportedly concerned that over the top (OTT) services would come under the ambit of the proposed legislation.

According to a report in Moneycontrol, the tech giant is worried that the telecom bill could bring apps like WhatsApp, Signal and others under government regulation. The report cited an internal email to colleagues from Shivnath Thukral, Director and Head of India Public Policy at Meta, which said that the Indian government could choose to bring OTT services under the ambit of the proposed legislation at a ‘future date.’ This could mean that Meta’s own apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram could be susceptible to increased government scrutiny and interference.

While mentions of ‘OTT’ have been removed from the bill, there is concern over certain ambiguities related to terms present like ‘telecommunication services’ and ‘messages,’ which could have broad implications. “The revised Bill text is now (in) the public domain. In a very positive movement, all explicit references to OTTs have been removed from the Bill…However, some ambiguity remains – as the definitions of “telecommunications services”, “telecommunications identifier” and “messages” could be interpreted to implicitly include OTT services, even if without explicit mention,” the report quotes Thukral as saying in an email sent on December 18.

Thukral said that the government could deem OTTs as a telecommunication service and bring internet platforms under regulatory scrutiny, despite the removal of the term from the bill itself. The Meta official, however, reportedly said in the email that he held discussions with ‘the Minister’ over the issue and was told that the government did not intend to regulate OTTs under the new telecom legislation.

The Telecommunications Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, was cleared in the upper house of the Parliament on Thursday. The bill seeks to amend laws regarding development, expansion and operation of telecommunication services and networks, provide a non-auction route for the allocation of satellite spectrum, and amend certain provisions of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act (TRAI), 1997. The legislation would also allow the government intercept messages and disclose them to investigative agencies in an “intelligible format” and set encryption standards. These powers could likely threaten end-to-end encrypted messaging services like Signal and WhatsApp.

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