A couple of days ago, while much of Twitter India raged about freedom of speech and there was lack of clarity on whether Salman Rushdie would be allowed to do a video conference as a part of the Jaipur Literature Festival; the twitter account for FirstPost, the online publication from the Network18 group, quoted the Jaipur Police Commissioner as saying that the organizers of the Jaipur Literary Festival had not sought permission for Skype conversation with Salman Rushdie, which led to questions on whether permission was required or not. This is a tricky one because while a Skype call – video or audio – is person-to-person communication, when projected on a screen for a public audience, is also an instance of a public screening, and when streamed to television, is a form of broadcast. I’d be surprised if permission for either of these would be required, but it does remind me that the conversations around Skype and other form of IP based communication, as well as video based communication, has been focused on blocking and monitoring it to whatever extent possible:
– As far back as 2007, when the ISP policy was being redefined, there were calls for banning Skype and Google Talk in India “since Skype / Google type service providers are not licensed to provide such services in India without having facility for lawful interception, therefore, the vigilance and monitoring efforts are required to be beefed up, as these applications not only bypass the laws and regulations of the land, but also pose a threat to security. As such these services should be blocked.”
– In 2009, India’s Intelligence Bureau had asked the Department of Telecom (DoT) to block VoIP services to and from the country, until a mechanism has been put into place to track these calls.
– In 2010-11, the Indian government put a block on video calling services from telecom operators, because they weren’t able to intercept them. We’re not sure of the current status – the block was lifted, but no one uses video calling. As we had pointed out then, with increased wireless broadband speeds and lower costs (we’re still waiting for them), video conferencing over Internet Protocol was still untouched.
The telecom regulator TRAI, had recommended unrestricted Internet Telephony, which, as far as we understand, was ignored. However, confusion on the exact Internet Telephony policy remained, even as the Department of Telecom issued orders to block foreign SIP (Session Initiation Protocols) to various ISPs. We retrieved a list of the foreign SIPs blocked via RTI: here, and the applicable policy on Internet Telephony, which everyone we spoke with appeared to be confused about (and still are): here.
So, back to the question asked – do Skype calls need permission in India? We think not, but given the antecedents of the government, there will be a time when they push for blocking unlicensed Internet Telephony, video or voice based.