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The tussle over selective ban on OTT apps continues

Telecom operators and big technology firms may be on opposing sides over regulation of OTTs, but seem to be on the same page over a proposal by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for their selective banning in cases of law and order problems.

Technical Issues such as use of proxy servers, virtual private networks (VPNs) by consumers in case of ban, dynamic internet protocol (IP) addresses used by OTTs, encrypted content traffic of OTTs, among others, have been flagged by both the telcos as well as big tech companies represented by organisations such as Broadband India Forum (BIF) and Asia Internet Coalition.

While they maybe on the same page on technical issues, there are differences on intent to selectively ban OTT apps rather than a complete internet shutdown.

The OTT apps use different IP addresses, which change frequently based on the servers used. In absence of a regular proper identification details of domain name and list of IPs, it will become difficult for telcos to selectively ban OTTs. In their submission to Trai’s paper on Regulatory Mechanism for Over-The-Top (OTT) Communication Services, and Selective Banning of OTT Services, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) suggested that instead of routing selective banning through telcos which is difficult, the OTT providers should implement IT solutions that would allow them to swiftly suspend their services in the case of an internet outage.

“A better solution of selective barring is available through OTTs themselves. The OTTs obtain the location of the customers and can easily bar access for selective barring. Once the OTT communication services are under licence this barring will be much easier to implement,” COAI said, adding that the solution is better than complete internet shutdown.

In counter, the Broadband India Forum which represents big technology companies said, “banning specific services can have severe implications for civil liberties including free speech. In addition to this, there are significant economic costs. Estimates from the Internet Society suggest losses caused by internet shutdowns crossed Rs 18,700 crore in 2022”.

“The provisions under the IT Act (noted below) are sufficient for blocking of online content and entire OTT platforms, and as such there is no need for an additional regulatory framework for selective banning of OTT services. If there are shortcomings in the provisions of the IT Act, the same can be addressed by updating the IT Act itself,” BIF said.

Even as Bharti Airtel in its response said that selective banning can result in over-blocking, where legitimate websites or services may get unintentionally blocked, causing collateral damage, the telecom operator echoed the views of COAI that the government should consider source-level blocking, that is it should directly engage with the OTT service provider or website or hosting server for blocking their operations under certain circumstances.

In response, Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) that also represents big tech companies like Google, Meta, etc said, “OTT service providers will have to obtain location information of their users to block their services in a specific geographic area. However, OTT service providers may not always have access to such information on account of a users’ privacy settings, etc”.

“They may also have to comply with requirements under the Rules for Data Privacy and Security Practices, as well as the upcoming DPDP Bill before accessing any such information,” AIC added.

On the subject of same service, same rules between OTTs and telcos, while tech firms said they are already regulated under the provisions of IT Act, telcos want the government to have licensing regime for them just like telcos and a revenue sharing mechanism for using the network of telcos.

COAI said, “given the regulatory disparities between Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) and Over-TheTop (OTT) Communication Service Providers, there is an urgent necessity to implement an equivalent regulatory framework for OTT communication services, by bringing these services under the Unified License framework”.

In counter, BIF reiterated that regulating OTT services will likely result in unintended regulation of a wide range of unrelated digital services that have no relation to telecom services, and negatively impact the availability of such services due to the higher compliance burden and entry barriers created through regulation. Financial Express

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