Anonymity in Internet calling apps will be a thing of the past under new telecom bill

It may soon become mandatory to set an identity while setting up an account in your favorite internet calling app. The new draft of the Telecommunications Act 2022 has proposed removing the possibility of anonymity when setting up accounts on OTT communication services such as Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook and Zoom. To protect users from instances of cyber fraud, the draft proposal states that the law will identify the individuals to whom it offers the services through a verifiable identification process.

The Center’s decision to expand the scope of telecom services, which will now include OTT communications and Internet-based communications, means these services should be subject to the same licensing terms that apply to traditional telecom service providers such as Jio and Airtel. In the bill, two specific clauses under Section 4 require disclosure of the identity of users accessing a licensed telecommunications service.

“Any entity that is granted a license under subsection (2) of Section 3 must uniquely identify the person for whom it provides services through a verifiable form of identification, as required,” the bill reads. In addition, the identity of a person sending a message using telecommunications services must be available to the user receiving such a message, under Section Two of the bill.

Clarifying that OTT and Internet communications services are subject to these clauses, Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw noted that the Prime Minister has been tasked with drafting the Telecoms Act, which focuses on user safety. “Because of technology, the distinction between voice and data calls has disappeared. Therefore, all platforms used to make calls should be subject to the same regulation,” he said.

If the government decides to pass these sections in parliament, it would mean that the anonymity option that many users associate with internet telephony services will no longer exist. Traditional Indian mobile operator telecom services require users to verify their identity through Aadhar authentication.

This could also line up with what mobile operators are demanding of the government as they want OTT communication services to be subject to the same regulations. However, Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, notes that “they don’t offer the same type of services as operators who own and manage the infrastructure layer on which those services are provided. In addition, TSPs do not provide video calling services and users expect anonymity when using internet communication apps.”

Falling within the scope of telecommunications services could also mean that the user’s right to privacy is also affected by these internet apps. A section of the bill notes that in the interests of security and public safety, certain messages over these telecommunications services may not be transmitted or may be intercepted at the direction of the state.

Privacy researcher Srinivas Kodali noted that the government’s fight against user anonymity is nothing new. “That’s why they wanted VPN companies to store user logs according to recent CERT-in guidelines.” Kodali added that global companies are likely to challenge regulations of this nature in Indian courts.

Published on

September 23, 2022