Update: The deadline comments and counter comments from stakeholders on the ‘Regulatory Mechanism for Over-The-Top (OTT) Communication Services, and Selective Banning of OTT Services’ consultation paper was extended to August 18, 2023 and September 01, 2023 respectively, as per a press release from the Ministry of Communications.
Comments/ counter comments may be sent to Shri Akhilesh Kumar Trivedi, Advisor (Network, Spectrum & Licensing), TRAI, at email@example.com.
Original post, July 10, 2023:
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper discussing regulatory mechanisms for Over-The-Top (OTT) communication services (like Whatsapp and Telegram) and the selective banning of these services on July 7. The paper seeks to address a back reference by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) from 2022. In this back-reference, it asked TRAI to reconsider the lack of regulation for messaging and calling applications. It also asked it to recommend a policy for the selective banning of OTT services during periods of unrest/crisis that are likely to be used by terrorists/anti-national elements.
For the scope of the consultation paper, messaging and calling applications are services that facilitate real-time person-to-person telecommunication services, similar to those provided by traditional telecom service providers.
What more did the DoT say in its back-dated reference:
DoT’s back-dated reference contains a copy of its discussion with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology on the subject of “suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact.” In this discussion, the committee said that “it will be of great relief if the Department [DoT] can explore the option of banning selective services, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc., instead of banning the internet as a whole.” This, it says, will “allow financial services, health, education, and various other services to continue to operate for business as usual, thereby minimizing inconvenience and suffering to the general public.”
MediaNama’s take: With the selective banning of services becoming feasible, it would become easier for the government to conduct internet shutdowns, thereby making them more rampant – which, in turn, would negatively affect people’s freedom of speech and expression.
Issues up for consultation:
- What should be the definition of messaging and calling apps, and how should these services be classified?
- What should be the definition of messaging and calling services? Please provide a list of features that may comprehensively characterize these services.
- What could be the reasonable classification of messaging and calling services? Please provide a list of the categories of these communication services based on such classification.
- Provide your views on the following aspects of messaging and calling apps as compared to telecom services: regulatory aspects; economic aspects; security aspects; privacy aspects; safety aspects; quality of service aspects and consumer grievance redressal aspects.
- Is there a need to bring messaging and calling apps under any licensing/regulatory framework to promote a competitive landscape for the benefit of consumers and service innovation?
- In case it is decided to bring messaging and calling apps under a licensing/ regulatory framework, what licensing/ regulatory framework(s) would be appropriate for the various classes of messaging and calling apps (as discussed in question 4)?
- Is there a need for a collaborative framework between these app providers and licensed TSPs? If yes, what should be the provisions of such a collaborative framework?
- What could be the potential challenges arising out of the collaborative framework between these service providers and TSPs?
- What are the technical challenges in selectively banning specific messaging and calling services and websites in specific regions of the country for a specific period? Also, suggest ways to mitigate these challenges.
- Is there a need to put in place a regulatory framework for the selective banning of these services under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, or any other law, in force? And if such a regulatory framework is decided upon, what classes of messaging and calling would be covered under this framework, and what would be the mechanisms for such a framework?
- Is there a need for the selective ban of websites apart from messaging and calling services? If yes, which class(es) of websites should be included?
- Are there any other relevant issues or suggestions related to regulatory mechanisms for messaging and calling apps and selective banning of these services?
TRAI has invited written comments from stakeholders on the issues mentioned above by 4th August 2023 and counter comments by 18th August 2023.
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