The draft telecom bill doesn't force decryption of messages on OTT-based services, although there is a provision for their interception, Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on September 23.
"There is no provision to force decryption (of OTT based messaging services) … However, there is a very clear process on interception with checks and balances based on Supreme Court's guidelines. That system will continue to be followed," he said.
A new draft telecom bill, which was released on September 21, says that messages transmitted or received by any 'telecommunication services' or 'telecommunication network' can be intercepted.
Its definition of 'telecommunication services' includes over-the-top communication services, internet and broadband services, fixed and mobile services, interpersonal communication services, internet-based communication services and so on.
The inclusion of OTT under the ambit of “telecommunication services” is particularly important because encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal are categorised under OTT services. Essentially, with this categorisation, the government may be be looking to intercept encrypted messaging platforms.
“We are creating a comprehensive framework of digital laws. Telecom laws have to be seen in consonance with other digital laws and frameworks like digital India act, data protection law,” Vaishnaw said at a press briefing when asked about the impact of the telecom bill on intermediary platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Signal.
The draft bill has also introduced provisions to allow the Centre or a state government, or any officer authorised by these governments, in the interest of 'sovereignty, integrity or security of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or preventing incitement to an office' can issue orders for surveillance or network shutdowns in writing.
Vaishnaw stressed that the bill seeks to bring about an environment of light-touch regulation and promote innovation. “Suppose someone wants to test an innovation in a square km of area. So we have set up a regulatory sandbox framework for such innovation,” he said.
“There won't be a burden on innovation. But the protection of users would be paramount,” the minister added.
As the bill further provides for the government to grant licenses for both telecommunication services or telecommunication networks, experts are of the view that OTT messaging platforms might come under the licensing regime in the future.
However, the government's explanatory notes accompanying the bill said that to ensure that there is no disruption in the sector, an entity providing telecommunication services or telecommunication network under current law will be entitled to continue to operate under its existing terms and conditions till it migrates to a set of new terms and conditions.“I see a timeline of 6-10 months before this bill could become a law. We are going through an important consultative process. We are in no hurry,” the minister said.