Digital Competition Bill 2024

India’s rushed telco bill must be amended to protect human rights 

UPDATE, 21 December 2023: Despite civil society’s concerns, the Telecommunications Bill, 2023 was rushed through both houses of parliament on 20 and 21 December, 2023, without any significant amendments, even as an unprecedented number of opposition members of parliaments were suspended. Access Now and over 65 other civil society representatives have written to the Indian government, urging them to immediately withdraw this bill to protect fundamental rights. Read the open letter here.

Access Now is alarmed by the introduction of India’s Telecommunications Bill, 2023 to parliament’s lower house today, amid opposition, after a last-minute addition to the agenda. The rushed move provides cover for the bill to evade public scrutiny and limit parliament’s ability to debate provisions which threaten open, secure, and unhindered internet access for people in India.

The bill has been introduced as a financial bill, allowing it to be classed as a Money Bill meaning that the upper house of parliament can only make recommendations, and have no power to make any binding amendments.

India’s Telecommunications Bill presented in parliament today has never been put out for public consultation, and needs an overhaul to protect privacy and free speech — it must not be passed through an expedited process. 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. The bill must be withdrawn, a new draft put through consultation, and meaningfully deliberated in both houses of parliament. Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now

The bill requires telecommunication service providers to force people to submit to “verifiable biometric based identification,” in order to be connected despite the Indian Supreme Court’s 2018 declaration that the mandatory linking of mobile connections with biometric identification is unlawful. India’s weak — and not yet enforced — data protection law means personal data is at risk.  

Access Now’s latest #KeepItOn report showed that India shut down the internet at least 84 times in 2022, the highest number worldwide, and has held that position for the last five years. The Supreme Court noted the overbroad nature of shutdown powers in 2020, but there has been no reform. 

No other country on earth shuts down the internet as much as India, and now we’re looking at the draconian tactic’s legitimisation. India’s Telecommunications Bill must be amended to remove the shutdown power — this is essential for people to exercise their right to internet access. Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now

Access Now continues to push for the scope of the bill to be narrowed, and is calling on authorities to include safeguards submitted on a previous draft of the bill in October 2022 and in joint letters with the Global Encryption Coalition and the #KeepItOn coalition. It appears that a reference to “over-the-top” communications services — like WhatsApp and Signal — has been removed from the bill, but provisions remain broad enough for the government to be able to include these services, opening up the people who use these services to potential privacy abuse. Without amendments, the bill threatens an open, secure, and accessible internet.