Indian Government wants to regulate WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram amid increasing app-based voice calls

Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal and many other messaging apps have started offering the voice-calling feature. However, such calls are hard to track, resulting in an increase in national security and financial fraud. Therefore, the Indian government feels a strong need to regulate OTT communication apps.

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Over-the-top (OTT) communication platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, etc. have overtaken traditional text messaging and even phone calls. According to DoT, a whopping 60%-70% of voice calls are currently taking place over these online messaging apps. The voice calls made using WhatsApp and other apps are hard to track, resulting in an increase in national security and financial fraud. Therefore, there is a strong need to regulate OTT communication apps.

India is the largest market for WhatsApp, with over 500 million users and continues to grow. Every day, a majority of Indians make use of WhatsApp’s free voice call feature to communicate with friends and family.

Why tracking voice calls on WhatsApp seems challenging

The telecom operators further explained that since all voice calls occur over data sessions, it is only possible to measure them in bytes rather than minutes. As a result, it is challenging to keep track of these voice calls over OTT communication.

Growth in data consumption in India

Mobile data consumption in India has shot up dramatically in the last 4-5 years, owning largely to 4G services. Interestingly, an average Reliance Jio subscriber consumed 20.8 GB per month during the April-June quarter. While Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea’s subscribers consumed 19.9 GB and 14.6 GB during the same period, respectively.

Surprisingly, this figure was much lower in 2017-18 when subscribers used to consume just over 1 GB per month on average, as per government data.

As 5G has already arrived in India, thanks to Jio. As a number of smartphone companies are planning to launch 5G devices in the country, data usage is expected to skyrocket. India has currently more than 500 million smartphone users. With the rollout of 5G, it is expected that both smartphone users and data consumption will rise.

In such a scenario, telco officials believe it is important for all voice and messaging communication platforms to adhere to certain safeguards with respect to consumer protection and national security.

Local data storage and KYC must be required for all OTT apps

When it comes to national security, phone voice calls can be easily tracked, but over-the-top voice calls cannot be tracked. India’s telecom operators are mandated to store Call Details Record (CDR) of all voice calls for at least a year. National security agencies use them whenever it is required.

Unfortunately, storing CDR is not currently available in over-the-top apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, etc. Therefore, the government now wants to bring OTT messaging and voice platforms under the licensing regime that will require them to maintain local data storage for a certain period. Additionally, all OTT platforms would need to implement the know-your-customer (KYC) procedure to ensure user verification.

By enabling these provisions, law enforcement agencies will be able to track illegal activities through OTT communication apps. According to officials, the majority of online financial scams are conducted via OTT calls, making it impossible to reach the perpetrators due to a lack of data.

Govt want a level playing field

Should OTT voice calls become made to be regulated, WhatsApp will be forced to keep data in India as well as perform KYC in the same way as the telecos. Yet, OTT players can oppose any attempt to include them in telecom legislation, saying they already have a regulatory framework under laws like the Information Telenology ACT and further regulation could hinder the development.

DoT has issued the draft bill for telecom, in which it clarifies the term “telecom services” and is extended to include OTT communications services. Although confusion about the implementation of the bill is making the players sceptical, the department has said that it will regulate communications apps to ensure security and data privacy for consumers.

Telecom operators, for their part insist on the ‘same service, same rules’ principle. They have emphasized the point that they pay levies, and purchase spectrum through auctions to provide messaging and voice services, and OTT platforms are based on their infrastructures but do not pay any fees.

Apps have always fought back against the claims of telecoms. They claim that operators’ profit from the increased data usage is skyrocketing, and the growth in data usage is driven by them only.

SourceETimes

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