TRAI May Soon Regulate OTT Services

Over-the-top (OTT) digital providers may soon be subject to regulations similar to those for telecom service providers (TSPs) by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI),  Mint reported.

A key argument in an open house on May 20 was for a licensing and regulatory framework for OTT communication services as they provided services similar to those of telecom companies, making them a threat to national security and data privacy if they are misused.

RS Sharma, Chairman of TRAI stated that the regulatory body would come out with a set of regulations or recommendations within a month, it said.

The report quoted Sharma saying, ”Communication services is a broad term, we are, however, restricting our scope to those OTT services whose function is similar to those TSPs that have a licence. The regulatory imbalance between TSPs and OTT services formed the central question of the discussion.”

TRAI also indicated that OTT video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar may also be under regulatory consideration in the future, but are currently not a part of the discussion, the report stated.

However, those favouring a free internet see this argument as a reductive one. The paper quoted the Internet Freedom Foundation saying that regulating diverse internet applications and services under the single category of OTT may not accomodate the “feature richness” of such applications.

“The dangers of avoiding bright lines of regulation and the uncertainty in treatment may prevent free expression which forms the very basis for innovative thought and action,” it argued.

The foundation also expressed concerns that such a move would bring about costly legal compliance and product decisions that may act as a  deterrent to the flourishing of India’s start-up ecosystem.

Telcos are supportive of the move as they incur expenses on regulation and taxes that OTTs are exempt from, the report stated. It also quoted the Cellular Operators Association of India, which said that TSPs pay multiple levies including regulatory levies, which limits the way TSPs can do business and earn revenues while at the same time incur added expenses in the form of compulsory compliances.

The association also told the publication that given the surge in demand for the data-streaming of video content, TSPs need to put the required investments to meet it. To be able to do, it suggested that either the current revenues earned by these operators need to grow, or the taxes that are charged be reduced.  The association suggested that one way to go about this would be to review the current licensing and regulatory provisions on TSPs, and placing the same on OTT communications services.

Earlier this year, nine leading online curated content providers voluntarily signed a self-regulatory code of best practices under the aegis of Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The platforms included Netflix, Hotstar, Jio, Voot, Zee5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALT Balaji and Eros Now.―Money Control

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