The TRAI had a packed house at its discussion on regulation of OTT communications services yesterday in Delhi, and we have a live blog up here (our Bangalore live blog is here). My observations on the open-house in Delhi (note that the quotes are slightly paraphrased):

1. Numerical observations: not entirely accurate, but this should give you a sense of the direction (we missed a few comments):

  • Number of comments asking for some sort of additional OTT regulation: 33
  • Number of comments speaking against additional OTT regulation: 21
  • The “Ex” numbers:
    • Number of former-something (police, TRAI, Telecom Commission, armed forces) personnel who spoke: 13, spoke 16 times
    • Former armed forces/police personnel who spoke: 5, spoke 7 times. Among the key speakers, who spoke most often: Lt Gen AK Choudhary, who used to be Director General of Military Operations.
    • How many asked for additional regulation of OTT services: all of them
  • Reliance Jio numbers:
    • Number of Reliance Jio execs who spoke: 2.
    • Number of times they spoke: 3 times.
    • Number of times they invoked national security: 4 times
  • Telecom operator numbers:
    • Number of telecom operator representatives who spoke: 7
    • How many asked for additional regulation of OTT services: all of them
  • Number of times the word ‘security’ was mentioned (in my notes; missed a few, so the actual number will be greater): 42. Of these, the phrase “National Security” was used at least 19 times.
  • Number of times the words ‘sovereign’ or sovereignty were used: 5.

2. National Security and sovereignty were the overriding theme: There was a point towards the end of the discussion when someone raised the issue of interception, saying that [Reliance Group Chairman] wouldn’t want someone sitting in his office, monitoring his communication, and that cyber security and privacy are international, global issues, and these need to be looked at, at the level of the UN. An executive, sitting right in front, first interrupted the person speaking when he mentioned Ambani. Sunil Bajpai, principal advisor, TRAI, intervened and requested that participants only address the TRAI, and not each other. Then, when the initial speaker mentioned the UN, the heckler again shouted “SIT DOWN. THIS IS INDIA. THIS IS NOT UN.”

A former armed forces personnel said during the discussion, “National Security should be embedded in everything.”

3. Former army-men, police personnel are worried about private communications: Sitting in front of me, seemed to be an entire row of armed forces personnel, and the most vocal among them was Lt Gen AK Choudhary. A quick roundup of comments made by them

  • If rules are weak, platforms will be misused: Any communication network is liable to be misused if not regulated, and if rules and regulations are weak, liable to be exploited.” Thus any communication provider, there has to be a reasonable regulation within a framework, which ensures the national requirement, Lt Gen Choudhary said. Another armed forces person said that he has seen personnel dying in Jammu & Kashmir, when someone identifies a vehicle and there’s an ID blast 500 meters ahead. “How you do it [regulate] is your problem. There are certain facts, when your comrades die in front of your eyes, you don’t understand the technicality…”
  • Where is freedom without security? Lt Gen AK Choudhary, following my challenge to all the armed forces personnel to explain how they’ll enable backdoors without risking privacy and security of citizens, said “Where is your free speech if there is no security?”…”regulation mechanism never stops technical issues, never stops proliferation, or technology advancement. However, regulation doesn’t mean that any regulation you want to avoid, that you forget about the nation. The national security in India’s context today is directly connected to sovereignty. The moment it starts affecting you directly. Therefore I would urge that please understand national security. There can be a balance. It can be done wisely, where a mechanism for regulation exists. You cannot be wishy-washy as far as national security is concerned. People talk about privacy but what about national security?”
  • Tracking communications is important for intelligence operations: 95% of intelligence is gleaned from communications, and 5% from human intelligence. They need on-time (i.e. realtime) intelligence to stop any incident from happening. We need regulation over them to tap them
  • India needs its own approach: The Europe template cannot be applied in India, because India as a national entity, is quite different from other entities, which has its own dynamics which might last for the next 50 years.
  • Data localisation is important: Everything on your smartphones is with OTT players. The rumours that can be spread, especially during disasters. There’s a need of the govt of India to ask for servers to be stored in India. “Korea has already mandated that part-servers should be in their country. Thailand, Indonesia, Latin America, Oman had taken some steps. We have suffered the worst in the world. 45000 have died in the valley, 25000 in north east, 25000 in Punjab. Not only should we get data, we must also make sure servers are located in our own country.”
  • “The rise of militancy has been after OTT services in the valley”, General Dhawan said. “When it came to OTTs, we gave to terrorists on the plate, the ability to plan and execute through secure communications. OTT players only provided post event information, in only 30-40% of cases. Here we lost the information supremacy in the valley.  There is an overall debate in the world today on privacy vs security. US, EU are trying to find backdoors for Law enforcement agencies.”
  • Social (media) security, to prevent social media from polluting minds: Dr K. Ram, a former police officer, said that social media has “great potential to pollute the mindset of human beings,” and “We not only need post event interception, but also pre-event interception. OTTs need to be brought under regulation to achieve a larger social goal.” He likened social media to guns, saying “Gun was invented first, and regulation came in later. Food adulteration started first, and then LEA brought in law to control food adulteration. Now that it has been discovered that OTTs can pollute minds, we need to regulate for that.” For good measure, he added “even if Internet or WhatsApp is freely available, that should not be permitted.”

4. Civil society/think tank representation and participation was limited: at the post lunch post the TRAI Open House, two out of the few civil society participants (and a few of the non-telecom industry representatives) complained to me that even though their hand had been raised frequently, they weren’t given a chance: it was mostly the veterans, telecom executives and the retired personnel sitting in the front few rows that were called upon. After a while, they gave up. One civil society rep left the discussion mid-way, saying that there’s no point in hanging around, after not being given a chance despite repeatedly trying to get the TRAI’s attention.

The TRAI perhaps needs to consider longer open house discussions especially for important topics, and also ensure that everyone gets a chance, not just those sitting in the front. To my mind, this is probably because of the hall chosen for this discussion: it’s narrow and long, and those at the back could get missed out by those on the podium in the front. We, at MediaNama, have had a similar problem at this hall, and avoid using it now.

That said, I did notice that there were very few civil society/Internet think tank representatives present at this discussion.

5. Reliance Jio’s focus area is also national security: Sandeep Verma and Mahipal Singh represented Reliance Jio at the TRAI open house. Key points they made:

  • Substitutability, national security: VoIP and phone calling are functionally substitutable. “One OTT subscriber has over 20 crore subscribers. This can easily substitute the traditional voice services”…”When you look at regulatory oversight, we believe that certain areas like national security and data protection should be applicable uniformly to all communication services”
  • Light touch regulation, national security: “We’d like to establish that regulatory oversight can be in two parts: financial and national security. We are proponent of a light touch regulatory regime. OTTs should be kept out of regulatory financial obligation.”
  • IT Act is insufficient, national security: Responding to comments about the Internet/OTTs already being covered by the IT Act, Sandeep Verma pointed out that even though Telecom operators are also covered under the IT Act, “we have a separate licensing regime”…, as a prerequisite. It’s not about IT Act or unified license that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about regulations about national security and data protection. There should not be any discrimination on this ground. The IT act says that in case the sovereign wants cooperation for lawful interception the intermediary will extend all facilities and support. This is used by OTTs to not play a supported . Some 1600 information requests to Facebook in first half of 2018, and they only responded to 50% of requests and only some information. There’s no obligation in the IT Act to mandatorily store data. There should not be any discrimination that one is covered under IT Act and others are not.
  • Data localisation, interception and national security: Mahipal Singh said that “While we agree that OTTs are working on public internet, that doesn’t mean that national security interest can be waived off. As our security agencies are saying, they’re dependent on content interception. Lawful interception should be applicable to OTTs as well. CDRs and IPDRs should be made available to security agencies. Security agencies need traceability of services. At the time of on-boarding, a subscriber verification should be done as in case of mobile services. This will be a complete package for security agencies. Complete user traffic is going out of the country and coming back. User information is stored outside the country. This is in contradiction to what TSPs have to ensure while providing telecom services. On emergency services, we have to encourage OTTs to provide emergency services. They can also have connectivity to PSTN service providers.”
  • Lastly, National security: “National security and data protection laws should be applicable to all providers, irrespective of experience, market they’re serving.”

6. Video is next? Prakash Vir from Prasar Bharati tried very hard to get the TRAI to consider regulating online video providers. Even though the consultation was on OTT communications providers, he tried getting definitional on the TRAI, saying “If I understand the word Telecom Service Provider, that word includes broadcasting as well. This consultation paper is silent about broadcast. We are facing non level playing field from online FM services. As regards TV channels, YouTube also has live channels, and we are under a licensing regime. That needs to be looked into.” Note that the TRAI believed to be looking into online video services next.

7. Rajan Mathews doesn’t give up: Rajan Mathews, DG of telecom lobby COAI, hopeful as ever, asked for the TRAI to reconsider its zero rating regulations. He never misses an opportunity.