Partial enforcement of India’s Telecom Act — a total eclipse of digital rights 

The Indian government is beginning to enforce the new Telecommunications Act, 2023, starting June 26, 2024, threatening people’s rights to access the internet and communicate using secure channels. Access Now urges the Indian government to amend India’s Telecom Act and consult with civil society and experts before framing rules to implement the Act to safeguard people’s rights to privacy and free speech. 

With broad government powers to intercept or detain any messages and break end-to-end encryption, the Act creates an overarching communications surveillance framework, inconsistent with the principles of necessity and proportionality. 

Privacy and encryption are under threat in India as sections of the Telecommunications Act, 2023 authorising the government to force platforms to disclose people’s messages in an ‘intelligible format’ come into force. There can be no national security without privacy, and authorities need to stop treating privacy as negotiable, collateral damage. Namrata Maheshwari, Senior Policy Counsel and Encryption Policy Lead at Access Now

India’s Telecom Act also solidifies the government’s existing internet shutdown powers rather than bringing reform. As per Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition’s 2023 internet shutdown report, India disrupted the internet 116 times in 2023. Authorities have already suspended the internet at least 27 times in 2024, including once during the country’s recent general election. The Act fails to include any safeguards against abuse of shutdown powers despite their devastating impact on people’s ability to communicate, access education or healthcare, and earn a livelihood.

The Telecom Act is a missed opportunity for urgently needed reform of surveillance laws and shutdown powers in India. It replaces a 19th-century colonial law with a 21st-century instrument of digital authoritarianism which directly infringes the rights to free speech and privacy under India’s Constitution. The Act was rushed through parliament while a large number of the people’s representatives were suspended, and India’s newly elected MPs must be allowed to freely review and reform this law. Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now

The Act is chock-full of provisions that prioritise the government over the people. Some of the provisions of the Act that will be brought into force at a later date also pose a grave threat to human rights. One provision will require biometric identification of all people using telecom services, heightening surveillance and ignoring the irrevocable harms caused by breaches of centralised databases.

More than 65 organisations globally had urged the Indian government to withdraw the Telecom Bill in December 2023. Access Now reiterates the call to amend the Telecom Act to include safeguards submitted on a draft of the bill in October 2022 and in joint letters with the Global Encryption Coalition and the #KeepItOn coalition.