No one will believe that Indian telecom sector was regulated by Indian Telegraph act of 1885 till November of 2023, as government had made drastic changes, in the operation of this vital sector from 1991, but could not change its basic legal frame work, leading to many upheavals in the sector.
Celebrated as showcase sector of the 1991 economic reforms of India, the sector saw an exponential growth from one telephone connection per one crore of the population ( teledensity) to almost one phone connection per person in India, heralding a communications revolution. The revolution which has impacted all walks of the Indian life and society, be it interpersonal relations or social and political relationships. With the advent of smart phones, telecom sector has become a vital part of social and personal life of citizens.
While “The Telecommunications Bill 2023” is a welcome move, its provisions infringing on the right to privacy which is fundamental is a worrisome aspect. The powers of interception and search of the bill says;” Messages or a class of messages between two or more persons may be intercepted, monitored, or blocked on certain grounds. Such actions must be necessary or expedient in the interest of public safety or public emergency, and must be in the interest of specified grounds which include: (i) security of the state, (ii) prevention of incitement of offences, or (iii) public order. These actions will be subject to procedure, safeguards, and duration as may be prescribed. Telecom services may be suspended on similar grounds. The government may take temporary possession of any telecom infrastructure, network, or services on occurrence of any public emergency or public safety. An officer authorised by the government may search premises or vehicles for possession of unauthorised telecom network or equipment.”. Which effectively meant that government can put you on surveillance, if they wish, and seize the end user equipments, be it a smart phone or a lap top or data saving devices. So far officially there has to be an authorization by the security agencies to do so and that has been made into “an officer authorised”. In times when softwares can spy on your digital devices, this amounts to a draconian provision, infringing not just on privacy but on freedom of speech.
The only silver line in this bill for the end users is the provisions with regard to protection of users. It says “ The central government may provide for measures to protect users which include: (i) prior consent to receive specified messages such as advertising messages, (ii) creation of Do Not Disturb registers, and (iii) a mechanism to allow users to report malware or specified messages. Entities providing telecom services must establish an online mechanism for registration and redressed of grievances.”. Hope this provision s can save the users from spam calls and emails which have become a major irritant for people.
The provisions with regard to “right of way” can also be a pain for the public in future. As its says, “ Entities laying telecommunication infrastructure may seek right of way over public or private property. Right of way must be provided on a non-discriminatory and non-exclusive basis to the extent possible.”. Which effectively meant that a telecom company is free to install a radio tower or lay cables according to their radio dissemination plan without considering the properties on the way, whether it is public or private. Though most telecom operators have already done their installations, with available spaces, in future it can be a worrisome for the individuals, as further expansion and upgradations can create issues for private property owners in the vicinities.
On the whole the Bill remains a welcome step barring few provisions in administering this vital sector of digital economy, but it makes little difference to the existing telecom service providers, who are going through tough financial issues, due to legacy issues.