It may soon be made mandatory to establish an identity while setting up an account on your favourite Internet calling app. The new draft Telecom Bill 2022 has proposed to do away with the option of anonymity while setting up accounts on OTT communication services such as Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook and Zoom.

To protect users from instances of cyberfrauds, the draft proposal notes that the Act will identify the persons to whom it provides the services through a verifiable mode of identification. 

The Centre’s decision to extend the ambit of telecommunication services, which will now include OTT communication and Internet-based communication, means they want such services to be under the ambit of the same regulations of licensing that govern traditional telecom service providers such as Jio and Airtel.

Clauses of scanner

In the draft bill, two specific clauses, under section 4, demand disclosure of the identity of users accessing a licensed telecom service. “Any entity which is granted a licence under sub-clause (2) of Section 3, shall, unequivocally, identify the person to whom it provides services, through a verifiable mode of identification as may be prescribed,” the Bill notes.

Moreover, the identity of a person sending a message using telecommunication services shall be available to the user receiving such message, according to the second clause of the Bill.

Clarifying that OTT and Internet communication services will be subject to these clauses, Minister of Communications, Ashwini Vaishnaw, noted that the Prime Minster instructed to draft the Telecom Bill focussing on users’ security .

“Due to technology, the distinction between voice and data calls disappeared. So, all platforms used to make calls should be brought under same regulation,” he said.

Therefore, if the government decides to pass these sections in Parliament, it would mean that the option of anonymity that many users associate with Internet calling services, will not stand anymore. Under the traditional telecom services of the Indian mobile operators, users have to verify their identity through Aadhar authentification. 

This could also be in line with mobile operators’ demands to the government, as they want OTT communication services to be subject to the same regulations.

Impact on Right to Privacy

Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, however, notes that “they do not provide the same type of services as operators who own and manage the infrastructural layer on which these services are provided”. “Moreover, TSPs do not provide video calling services, and users do have expectations of anonymity while using internet communication apps,” Jain said.

Coming under the ambit of telecommunication services could also mean that the user’s right to privacy is also affected by these Internet apps. A section in the Bill notes that in the interest of security and public safety, certain messages on these telecommunication services might not be transmitted or intercepted at the behest of the State.

Privacy researcher Srinivas Kodali noted that the government’s fight against user anonymity is not a new thing. “This is why they wanted VPN companies to store user logs under the recent CERT-in directives,” Kodali said, adding that global companies will likely challenge regulations along these lines in Indian courts.

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