India’s New Telecom Law Opens Door for Musk’s Starlink Despite Privacy Worries

India’s parliament has passed a telecommunications bill that replaces its century-old rules as the country, with over 1.17 billion telephone connections and 881 million internet subscribers, aims to modernize connectivity and embrace new services including satellite broadband, just months before general elections.

On Thursday, the upper house of the Indian parliament approved the Telecommunications Bill, 2023. It replaces the rules made in the telegraph era from as early as 1885, granting the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government the power to use and take control of telecom services and networks and monitor traffic data in national security interest. It also allows for the Indian government to intercept communication.

The bill also allows spectrum allocation for satellite-based services without participating in auctions, favoring companies including OneWeb, Starlink, and Amazon’s Kuiper. India’s Jio had earlier opposed the model of spectrum allocation administratively.

The bill also mandates biometric verification for subscribers and restricts the number of SIM cards each subscriber uses to limit fraud. It also includes provisions for civil penalties of up to $12,000 in the case of infringing specific provisions and up to $600,400 for breaching the terms and conditions defined in the law.

The bill carries amendments to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997, which allow executives with over 30 years of private sector experience to be appointed as regulator’s chairperson, while those with over 25 years can be its members. The country previously only allowed retired government employees to serve as chairpersons and members of the regulator.

“It is very comprehensive and very big structural reforms have come from the vision of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji. The legacy of the old scammers in the telecom sector will be left behind, and arrangements will be made through this bill to make the telecom sector a sunrise sector,” Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Indian telecom minister, said while introducing the bill in the parliament.

Interestingly, the telecom bill excludes the term “OTT” found in its initial draft last year, indicating regulations for over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. Industry bodies have praised the change. Digital rights activists and privacy advocacy groups have raised concerns over the ambiguity related to the regulation and absence of public consultations for the bill’s final version.

At a public event earlier this week, Apar Gupta, the founding director of the digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, said the bill lacks safeguard architecture against those who are surveilled.

Digital rights organization Access Now called for the bill’s withdrawal and the creation of a new draft through consultation.

“The bill is regressive as it enhances the government’s colonial-era powers to intercept communications and shut down the internet. It undermines end-to-end encryption, which is crucial for privacy,” said Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now, in a prepared statement.

The bill now awaits the Indian President’s approval to become an official act.

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