Senior DoT officials told ET that regulating apps is now necessary, as technology has changed to a point wherein their misuse can be disastrous for the country.
“Currently, we don’t have a mechanism to control or stop something that is creating havoc on social media,” one of the officials said. “We have to do a post-mortem, where also not much can be done. We should be able to control and analyse real-time, so misinformation or other things can be stopped.”
He stressed that misinformation travels so fast on apps that it soon becomes uncontrollable, creating law and order problems. “If some regulations are put in place, social media would be a much safer place,” the official said. The department is discussing the matter internally and will soon reach out to the ministries, officials said.
DoT also plans to seek views from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). However, it is yet to decide if it wants to take the issue first to the Digital Communications Commission — the highest decision-making body in DoT — or seek the regulator’s recommendations directly, the officials said.
While the telecom department can deal with communication apps that are providing services similar to telcos, other social media apps — such as Twitter and Facebook — come under MeitY.
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DoT is also evaluating whether to undertake stakeholder consultations on its own, given that any move to regulate such apps will have wider implications.
Most industry associations such as Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), Nasscom and US-India Business Council, among others, had opposed any kind of regulatory framework for OTTs when the issue was earlier discussed by Trai. Their view is that apps are already regulated by the IT Act and any further regulation will stifle innovation.
This is not the first time that a move to regulate apps has been contemplated by the government. In November 2018, Trai issued a consultation paper titled Regulatory Framework for OTT Communication Services. After comments from all stakeholders, the regulator, in September 2020, ruled out the need to regulate such apps but had said it would review the stance periodically.
“Any regulatory prescription in haste may leave an adverse impact on the industry as a whole. Accordingly, the authority is of the opinion that market forces may be allowed to respond to the situation without prescribing any regulatory intervention. However, developments shall be monitored and intervention, as felt necessary, shall be done at appropriate time,” Trai had said in its recommendations.
Level playing field
The end-to-end encryption offered by the likes of WhatsApp has been a bone of contention with the government for long. While intermediary rules prescribe that apps have to provide information sought by law enforcement agencies, on most of the occasions, apps express inability to do so, citing encryption as a reason.
Telecom operators have long been demanding that OTT players be regulated as they offer the same set of communication services as them. While telcos are subjected to various licensing and regulatory provisions, OTTPs are not bound by any such thing, preventing a level playing field.
The triggers driving the pros and cons of regulating apps have changed over the years. The initial call for regulation was seen as an economic issue — one of addressing financial arbitrage between telcos and apps players, since the former were seeing an erosion in their revenues from voice services and text messages.
However, with voice services becoming virtually free, and most of telcos’ tariff plans bundling both voice and data without segmentation, calls for OTTP regulation shifted to issues of security, lawful interception and law enforcement. Telcos then pointed out to the regulator that while they were required to allow lawful interception by security agencies, OTT players were not bound by similar rules.