New Telecom Act: A missed opportunity for reform?

The government has highlighted positive aspects of the new Act. But many experts are not convinced, in fact they are worried by some aspects.
Representative Image.
Representative Image.(Photo | Pexels)

Certain provisions of the Telecommunications Act, 2023 came into effect on June 26, 2024, granting, among other things, the Indian government expanded powers to intercept communications and take temporary control of telecom networks in the interest of "public safety" or during emergencies.

"Sections 1, 2, 10 to 30, 42 to 44, 46, 47, 50 to 58, 61 and 62 of the Act will go into effect from June 26, 2024," the Ministry of Communications Gazette that announced this said.

The Telecom Act, 2023 was passed by both houses of the Parliament in December 2023 despite the suspension of over 140 opposition MPs and amidst chaos and disarray. It received Presidential assent on December 24, 2023.

Upma Singh, a Policy and Political Communication Consultant for Jyotiraditya Scindia, spoke of how the Act replaces the two colonial era Acts -- Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 -- which the Ministry of Telecommunications says are outdated for the modern technological landscape.

To address this gap, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was established in 1997, followed by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) in 2000. These steps aimed to reduce government control and introduce independent regulation. Finally, in June 2023, the new Telecommunications Act was enacted to replace the outdated colonial laws, she explained.

What the government has highlighted

According to the brief provided by the ministry of telecommunications. The positive aspects of the new Act include:

1. Streamlined Framework :

The new act replaces two older laws with one comprehensive set of regulations. Previously, telecom service providers and users had to navigate through multiple sets of rules, which could be confusing and inefficient. By consolidating these laws into a single framework, the regulations become clearer and easier to understand for everyone involved. This streamlining should lead to smoother operations and compliance for telecom companies, as well as a more straightforward experience for consumers.

2. Spectrum Management:

Spectrum refers to the radio frequencies used for wireless communication. The new act introduces a more structured and transparent process for assigning spectrum to telecom companies. This clarity is crucial because spectrum is a limited resource, and efficient allocation is key to maximising its use. By improving spectrum management, the act aims to ensure that telecom services can operate more effectively, potentially improving network quality and reducing congestion.

3. Right of Way (RoW):

Right of Way pertains to the legal right to pass through or use land or infrastructure owned by others. In the context of telecom, RoW is critical for deploying network infrastructure like cables, towers, and equipment. The new act defines a clear framework for obtaining RoW permissions, which historically has been a bottleneck for expanding network coverage. With streamlined RoW procedures, telecom companies can deploy infrastructure more quickly and efficiently, thereby enhancing network capacity and extending service coverage to more areas.

4. User Protection:

This aspect focuses on safeguarding consumers of telecom services. The new act includes provisions aimed at protecting users' rights and interests. It establishes mechanisms for addressing grievances and complaints promptly and fairly. By enhancing user protection, the act aims to ensure that consumers receive better service quality and fair treatment from telecom companies. This could lead to improved customer satisfaction and trust in the telecom sector.

Worries experts have raised

But, while the government has marketed the new Act as a 'decolonisation' initiative, independent researcher Srinivas Kodali characterised the replacements of existing laws as "superficial attempts at decolonization."

"The replacement of the two acts have been portrayed as 'decolonisation' by the government same as in the case of the new criminal laws... So, most of the provisions of the law are still colonial. That gives complete power to the government," he added.

His concerns are echoed by others.

The Telecom Act, 2023, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), continues to hang on to the colonial provisions of its 1885 predecessor it purportedly aims to overhaul.

"It misses a huge opportunity to reform the telecom sector and create a rights-centric law that protects user rights instead of infringing on them," the IFF said.

Tejasi Panjiar, Associate Policy Counsel, IFF said the act itself is vague and it's difficult for common people to understand.

The Act wasn't drafted following proper parliamentary procedures and bypassed public interest considerations, she said.

Dr Y Nithyanandam, professor and head of the Takshashila Institution's Geospatial Program, underscored the critical importance of national security in today's complex global landscape.

However, he critiqued the expansive extension of authority to government agencies, suggesting it could have been managed more judiciously without overreaching.

Big brotherly?

According to the Internet Freedom Foundation, Section 19(F) empowers the government to set encryption and data processing standards, but the justification of "public safety" is open to misuse.

Section 29 compels users to provide accurate identification while obtaining telecom services. If applied to internet services, this could restrict anonymity and harm whistleblowers and journalists who rely on it.

Sections 43 and 44 grant authorities broad search and information-gathering powers. The lack of clear guidelines and the use of ambiguous terms raise privacy concerns, especially if applied to internet services.

Incomplete Framework: The Act relies on yet-to-be-notified rules for crucial aspects like interception procedures and safeguards. This creates uncertainty and delays enforcement.

Overall, the Telecom Act is seen by experts as a missed opportunity for reform. The vague language and broad powers granted to the government raise concerns about potential misuse and privacy violations.

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