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A bill for control over all communications

The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, has the declared aim of reforming and updating the 138-year-old Telegraph Act that governs the telecom sector.It will also update the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. The old laws were inadequate in the modern age and they were driven by the colonial view of governance and control. The meaning and means of communications have changed so drastically in these years that it is a matter of surprise that a comprehensive overhaul of the laws has been attempted only now.

The new bill aims to simplify bureaucratic procedures and processes in a field which has become very complicated, with too many players of different kinds. Licensing procedures will now be digitised and operators will benefit from a decentralised system of permissions and dispute resolution.

The bill proposes to put an end to the present licensing system, which is cumbersome. Telecom is a field with international linkages. The bill has followed international practice by providing that those in the satellite internet sector will not need to bid for spectrum. It has been seen that bidding increases the cost of services. It also proposes to penalise with fine and jail terms illegal phone taps andunauthorised hacking. It provides for biometric authorisation for SIM card issuance, which is expected to serve as a safeguard against identity theft and related offences. But all the reforms and updating have a serious negative side because the bill gives large, in fact absolute, powers of control and management to the government in a field where the individual’s fundamental right to privacy and autonomy is very important. Some of its definitions are so broad that the government will be able to bring any kind of communication within its control.

A large number of services will be brought under the purview of the bill and the government will be empowered to exercise powers of surveillance over, and intrude into the privacy of, individuals and organisations.

The government can intercept messages of any kind between people for reasons like maintaining “State security” and “public order”, which are terms that can be interpreted to its convenience. Wiretapping by State agencies gets a green signal under the bill and it gives the State the power to take over telecom services in the case of public emergencies. Many of the provisions which are claimed to have been put in place in the interests of the user can also be misused. Industry bodies have welcomed the bill for the streamlining and simplifications it has done but the control regime will affect them, too.

Perhaps they cannot say so publicly in the current political atmosphere. That a bill with such provisions was rushed through the House when almost the entire Opposition is under suspension says much about the government’s intent behind the bill and the state of our democracy.

(Published 20 December 2023, 19:54 IST)

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