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DoT has done its job, now what Mr Modi?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-05-2014 Leslie D’Monte

The department of telecommunications (DoT) proposals, suggesting a complete overhaul of the regulatory framework that governs the Indian telecom sector, have been well thought out.

If taken to their logical conclusion by the newly elected National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the suggestions that were presented to the cabinet secretary on Tuesday should result in a regime that will prove fair to both telecom services providers and users.

An umbrella policy that will erase the confusion stemming from the several laws governing the telecom sector, for instance, will make services providers breathe easy.

The proposal to provide a spectrum management policy that will ensure efficient and optimal usage of the scarce resource, on its part, is bound to result in the growth of the telecom sector which, in turn, can boost India’s gross domestic product (GDP) with increased mobile and broadband penetration both in urban and rural areas.

A similar proposal was dropped by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government last year, and the hope is that Narendra Modi, who will take over as India’s new Prime Minister on 26 May, will take this forward, especially given his penchant for 3D avatars and information technology (IT).

DoT’s suggestion to speed up the work on the `20,000 crore national optical fibre network (NOFN) that will connect all panchayats across the country should further the government’s e-governance initiatives that are changing the face of the country with everything from passports to land records being digitised, making processes transparent and easier for individuals to track.

After all, Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister, has won around 125 awards in the field of e-governance till date. In January, Gujarat won four of the 16 national e-governance awards—the highest amongst all states—at the National e-Governance Awards for 2013-14 function in Kochi.

Last, but not the least, is DoT’s proposal to shift the government’s focus to communications as a lifeline service with a priority on issues such as national security, public safety, morality, privacy and disaster management. As part of the new proposals, DoT has suggested a new communications law that will replace the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India act, 1997 and partially the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000.

This is the need of the hour, given that most, if not all, of these laws are archaic and need an overhaul to keep pace with developments in the online world, and India’s poor track record in protecting the privacy of its citizens.

For instance, the Indian Telegraph Act and the IT Act, 2008 (amendments introduced in IT Act, 2000), give the government the power to monitor, intercept and even block online conversations and websites. Under Section 79 of the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, intermediaries—telcos, Internet services providers, network services providers, search engines, cyber cafes, web-hosting companies, online auction portals and online payment sites—are mandated to exercise “due diligence” and advise users not to share or distribute information violating the law or a person’s privacy and rights.

One may recall that in December 2012, the then minister for communications and IT Kapil Sibal (who lost in the general elections) said in New Delhi that the Centre had no option but to “evolve guidelines” to ensure that “blasphemous content on the Internet or television is not allowed”, since Internet and social networking sites such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Twitter, Yahoo Inc., and Facebook Inc. failed “to respond to and cooperate with” the government’s request to keep “objectionable” content off their sites. A few days later, Sibal clarified that “...this government (of the UPA) does not believe in censorship”.

The statement, however, did not cut much ice since the UPA government on 29 April 2011 had called for bids to set up communications monitoring systems in all state capitals, specifying that the system should be able to monitor voice calls, fax messages, SMSes and MMSes, and work across terrestrial networks, GSM and CDMA (the dominant mobile telephony platforms), and the Internet.

On 16 June 2011, it approved the innocuously named CMS (communication monitoring system), with government funding of `400 crore. By April 2013, leaked documents revealed that the CMS is able to snoop not only on voice calls, fax messages, SMSes and MMSes across all phone networks but also able to access Internet data, see the sites’ users visit and even build a cache of a user’s inbox, to decrypt at leisure.

European Union countries, too, are known for their surveillance with thousands of closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) installed all over cities, but they do have strong privacy laws too. Such is not the case in India.

Cyber law experts and privacy lobby groups have consistently pointed out that the world’s largest democracy’s attempt to snoop on its citizens with the CMS, ostensibly for national security reasons, could be abused in the absence of a transparent process and a privacy law. Human Rights Watch, a lobby group, in a 7 June 2013 media release, described the CMS as “chilling, given its (India’s) reckless and irresponsible use of sedition and Internet laws”.

Finally, DoT’s proposals, if implemented, will also send the right signals to the international community as governments (including India) and online advocacy groups battle for more say in developing a roadmap to govern cyberspace, especially on the back of numerous reports of cybersnooping by US government agencies and the US government’s decision to finally cede control of key Internet domain name functions.

DoT appears to have done good homework. One sincerely hopes the NDA government, headed by Modi, will deliver the goods.

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