The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is of the view that communication apps or over-the-top (OTT) players such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal should be regulated keeping in mind the security aspect and the need for lawful interception. It will soon begin consultations with the Ministries of Electronics and IT (MeitY) and Information and Broadcasting, in addition to seeking views from the Telecommunications Authority.
Senior DoT officials told ET that regulation of apps is now necessary as the technology has changed to a point where their misuse can be disastrous for the country.
“Currently, we don’t have a mechanism to control or stop anything that creates chaos 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 check and analyze in real time, so that misinformation or other things can be stopped.”
He emphasized that misinformation travels so fast on apps that it becomes uncontrollable, creating law and order problems. “If some rules stay in place, social media would be a much safer place,” the official said. The DoT is discussing the matter internally and will soon reach out to ministries, officials said.
The department also plans to seek the views of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). However, it is yet to be decided whether it wants to take the matter first to the Digital Communications Commission — the highest decision-making body of the DoT — or seek the regulator’s recommendations directly, officials said.
While the telecom department may deal with communication apps that provide services similar to telcos, other social media apps – such as Twitter and Facebook – come under MeitY.
The DoT is also assessing whether to conduct stakeholder consultations on its own, given that any move to regulate such apps will have broader implications.
Most industry associations such as the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), Nasscom and the US-India Business Council, among others, had opposed any kind of regulatory framework for OTTs when the issue was discussed by Trai earlier. Their view is that apps are already regulated by the IT Act and any further regulation will stifle innovation.
This is not the first time that a move to regulate apps has been considered by the government. In November 2018, Trai issued a consultation paper titled Regulatory Framework for OTT Communication Services. Following comments from all stakeholders, the regulator in September 2020 ruled out the need to regulate such apps, but had said it would review the position periodically.
“Any regulatory prescription in haste may leave a negative impact on the industry as a whole. The Authority is therefore of the view that market forces may be allowed to respond to the situation without prescribing any regulatory intervention. However, developments must be monitored and Intervention as deemed necessary necessary, must be done at the appropriate time,” Trai said in its recommendations.
Level Playing Field
The end-to-end encryption offered by the likes of WhatsApp has long been a point of contention with the government. While intermediary rules mandate that apps provide information requested by law enforcement agencies, in most cases apps express an inability to do so, citing encryption as a reason. Telecom operators have long demanded that OTT players be regulated as they offer the same set of communication services as them. While telcos are subject to different licensing and regulatory provisions, OTTPs are not bound by any such, preventing a level playing field.
The triggers that drive the pros and cons of regulating apps have changed over the years. The initial call for regulation was seen as an economic issue – a matter of resolving financial arbitrage between telcos and apps players, as the former saw an erosion in their revenues from voice services and text messaging. But with voice services becoming virtually free, and most telcos’ tariff plans bundling both voice and data without segmentation, calls for OTTP regulation have shifted to issues of security, legal eavesdropping and law enforcement. Telcos then pointed out to the regulator that while they were required to allow lawful wiretapping by security agencies, OTT players were not bound by similar rules.