The draft Indian Telecommunications Bill, 2022, intends to consolidate laws on the provision, development, and expansion of telecommunication services, networks, infrastructure, and spectrum.
The Bill does not reflect many of the concerns pertaining to surveillance, Internet shutdowns, and licensing and seems in many ways to be the 21st century avatar of the Indian Telegraph Act (ITA), 1885. One of the main concerns is that it is tilted heavily in favour of telecom service providers, leaving Internet service providers at a disadvantage. It also fails to articulate the spirit and essence of judicial pronouncements on privacy (the K.S. Puttaswamy judgment) and data protection. Besides, its all-encompassing definition of telecommunication services brings an entire range of disparate services under its regulatory ambit.
One of the sections in the Bill that has drawn genuine concern is Section 24—“Provisions for public emergency or public safety”. The Central or State government or any officer authorised by them, can, in the event of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, take temporary possession of any telecommunication service, network, or infrastructure from a licensee or a registered entity. They can also in the interest of sovereignty, integrity, security of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or on the grounds of preventing incitement to violence, order, in writing, the stoppage of transmission of a message or a class of messages from a person or a group of persons relating to any subject and received by a telecommunication service or network. The message will be disclosed only to the officer mentioned in the order issued by the appropriate authority.
The order can also direct the suspension of communications or a group of communications. The section also decrees that all actions in the subsections will be maintained so long as the public emergency exists and in the interest of public safety. The section is silent on what construes a public emergency or a situation involving public safety.
The Bill, if enacted, will repeal three legislations: the ITA, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950.