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Telecom Bill on a case-to-case basis to regulate OTT apps

The new Telecom Bill, now in final stages after public consultation, will likely contain a provision to regulate over-the-top (OTT) communication apps like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Skype etc, albeit on a case-to-case basis.

This means that not every OTT communication app will need to comply with regulations. Only some selected apps will need to take authorisation from the government to operate, based on criteria such as turnover and user base, according to people aware of the matter.

In a bid to communicate its stance to have light-touch regulation on OTT communication apps in the new Telecom Bill, the government has likely introduced the word ‘authorisation’ instead of licence, officials said. They pointed out the word licence indicates a strong kind of regulation, including hefty fees, which is not on the government’s agenda for OTT communication apps.

While the Bill is expected to have a provision for authorisation of communication apps, whether such apps will need to pay a fee on a recurring basis as a percentage of their adjusted gross revenue (AGR), will be notified after the consultation process by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on the subject.

Official sources said the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is strongly pushing to introduce the Telecom Bill in the current monsoon session of Parliament which will be in session until August 11. However, if that is not possible, a cabinet approval is the immediate target and the Bill would then be brought in the winter session, officials said.

All stakeholder consultation has been completed including discussions with the ministries involved. The drafting of the new Telecom Bill has started and it is currently with the legislative department, which drafts all the Bills, ordinances, an official said, on the condition of anonymity.

Apart from the OTT communication apps, the new version of Bill has likely reduced the penalties for breach of terms and conditions post the discussions with the home ministry. In the earlier version, the penalty proposed was up to `5 crore for the breach. There is more emphasis on alternate dispute mechanism, wherein mutual settlement will be encouraged rather than litigation for any dispute, a government official said.

Further, within the penalty clause, categorisation of some offences has been changed to compoundable from non-compoundable, sources said. Compoundable offences are those specified under the Bill that can be compromised, allowing the complainant to withdraw charges against the accused. Non-compoundable offences are more serious and cannot be settled through compromise.

Post the inter-ministerial and public consultation, the new version is expected to have removed all the contentious provisions, which were leading to overlap of regulations with certain ministries, officials said. One such provision was mergers, demergers and acquisitions of telecom licensees under which the firms also need to comply with terms and conditions to be specified by DoT. However, DoT has likely removed such provision from the new version of the Bill after the commerce ministry raised concern over that.

The Draft Indian Telecommunications Bill, 2022 was introduced by the government for public consultation in September 2022. The Draft Bill seeks to replace the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. Financial Express

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