Telecom Minister Confirms OTT Apps Exempt from New Telecommunications Bill

The recently passed Telecommunications Bill 2023 in India will not extend its regulations to over-the-top (OTT) apps or services, according to Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. This announcement alleviates concerns about increased government scrutiny and interference in popular OTT communication platforms like WhatsApp and Signal. Vaishnaw clarified that the new bill does not cover OTT apps and that they will continue to be regulated under the Information Technology Act, 2000, which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

One of the key provisions of the new telecom bill is the reduction of powers vested in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Instead, the government now possesses unprecedented authority, including the ability to take over telecom services in the interest of national security. While this shift has sparked concerns over potential government interference, it is important to note that the exclusion of OTT apps from the bill maintains the existing regulatory framework for these platforms.

OTT Coverage by the Information Technology Act

OTT apps, which provide services such as voice calls, messaging, and video streaming over the internet, are currently governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000. This legislation, overseen by the MeitY, ensures that OTT platforms adhere to certain regulations and safeguards. By maintaining their regulation under this existing law, the government aims to promote stability and continuity in the OTT sector, while addressing any concerns regarding the broader telecommunications bill.

Shortly after the passage of the telecommunications bill, Meta (formerly known as Facebook), expressed apprehension in an internal email from Shivnath Thukral, Director and Head of India Public Policy at Meta. However, the revised version of the bill, as approved by Parliament, does not make any specific references to OTT or OTT platforms. Instead, it employs terms such as “telecommunication services,” “messages,” and “telecommunications identifier,” which could potentially encompass OTT platforms as well. It is important to note that the absence of explicit inclusion indicates a deliberate decision to maintain the existing regulatory structure for OTT apps.

Awaiting Presidential Assent

As the newly passed telecommunications bill awaits the President’s assent, it is important to recognize its significance. If approved, the bill will replace three older laws, namely the 138-year-old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act of 1950. This update reflects the government’s commitment to modernize and adapt its regulatory framework to the evolving telecommunications landscape.

The exclusion of OTT apps from the new Telecommunications Bill 2023 provides clarity and consistency in the regulatory landscape. By maintaining the existing legal framework under the Information Technology Act, 2000, the government ensures that OTT platforms continue to operate within established parameters. This decision strikes a balance between national security concerns and the need for a thriving and innovative OTT ecosystem in India. As the bill awaits the President’s assent, stakeholders in the telecommunications and OTT sectors can anticipate a focused approach to regulation that addresses specific areas of concern without disrupting the broader digital landscape.

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