Draft telecom bill date extended: Why there may be KYC for WhatsApp, Signal and others, and more

That Telecommunications Department (DoT) has extended the deadline for submitting comments on the draft Telecoms Act 2022 to October 30 at the request of stakeholders. “In response to requests from multiple stakeholders, the Department has decided to extend the deadline for receiving comments to October 30,” DoT said in a notice. The previous deadline for comments was October 20.
The Telecom Services Bill presented at the end of September broadened the definition of telecom services and included OTT communication services (such as WhatsApp, signal and telegram), satellite communication services, internet and broadband services, in-flight and sea connection services, among others, fall within its scope. Bringing OTT communications under telecom means enterprise platforms like WhatsApp, Signal and others may need to perform know-your-customer (KYC) verification of their users, just like telecom operators. Here’s what this means and why the government might emphasize this:
Why the government is proposing KYC for WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and others
The move to regulate over-the-top communication providers (OTT) such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram is said to have been fueled by the exponential growth of voice calls over these platforms in recent years. The government says these calls are difficult to trace, raising challenges including around national security and financial fraud. Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said last month: “[The] The distinction between voice calls and data calls has disappeared. KYC must be done for everyone [all such] Platforms and the Services must be governed by the same law.”
Over 50% voice calls on OTT applications
According to a senior Department of Telecommunications (DoT) official, 60-70% of voice calls are currently made through apps like WhatsApp, Signal and more. For example, social media major WhatsApp counts India as its largest market with over 500 million users and accounts for a majority of calls made through communication apps. Telecom operators also claim that a significant portion of voice calls are over OTT, but say it’s difficult to quantify this as a percentage because it’s all happening over data sessions, which can be measured in bytes, not minutes.
To track illegal activities
According to DoT officials, while voice calls can be easily traced for issues of national concern like security, this is not possible with OTT calls. Telecom operators are required to keep Call Detail Records (CDR) of all voice calls for at least one year. CDR data comes in handy when requested by security agencies. There is currently no such requirement for OTT calls. The government now wants to design a mechanism whereby the license terms for OTT apps would include storing data locally for a certain period of time.
Most financial scams are carried out using OTT apps
Enabling these provisions allows law enforcement agencies to track illegal activity using OTT platforms. Officials said that most online financial scams are done through OTT calls and lack of data makes it impossible to reach the culprits.
Will this end WhatsApp encryption?
DoT officials insist there is no plan in the draft Telecoms Act to force decryption of encrypted messages, but there is a clear mechanism for interception based on a Supreme Court ruling.
What do OTT players say
OTT actors are opposed to any move to be included in the telecoms laws, claiming that they are already regulated by the Information Technology Act and further regulation will stifle innovation.
What do telecom companies say
Telecom operators have been demanding the “same service, same rule” principle for several years. The argument of these companies is that they pay fees and auction spectrum to offer voice and messaging services, while OTT platforms run on their infrastructure and pay nothing. Apps have historically countered telcos’ claims that operators are profiting from rising data usage by charging subscribers.