India telecoms bill draws fire from human rights group

India’s much-contested proposals to regulate influential platforms such as Whatsapp, Signal, and Facetime have drawn fire from human rights campaigners.

The draft version of its Telecommunications Bill was published last week, prompting internet activist group Access Now to brand it as “yet another attack on end-to-end encryption, and people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Access Now described end-to-end encryption as “crucial not only for people’s privacy, free expression, and safety, but also to protect democratic principles.”

It opposes provisions in the bill that would subject over-the-top apps – those using the internet to deliver content to a device rather than cable or satellite – to the same regulatory oversight as SMS and phone calls.

This move would theoretically authorize the Indian government to intercept private messages sent via Whatsapp, Signal, or other digital platforms.

Access Now has called on the government of India to amend the bill, saying: “Any framework impacting encrypted communications services must categorically prevent measures to break, weaken, or circumvent encryption.”

Through the proposed legislation, the Indian government seeks to consolidate pre-existing laws on the provision and development of telecommunications within the country, which has a vast population estimated at more than 1.4 billion. Of these, 900 million are expected to have internet access by 2025.

If passed, the Telecommunications Bill would replace the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933, and The Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Protection) Act of 1950.

But Access Now says the new law would in effect enable more draconian policing of internet usage, with further negative impacts on freedom of expression in a country that has already been criticized for its state-sanctioned online blackouts.

Describing India as “the world leader of internet shutdowns [...] for four consecutive years,” Access Now said: “Adopting the new Bill is a flagrant disregard for concerns raised by human rights groups regarding the proliferation of shutdowns in India, and will only embolden authorities to continue this rights-harming practice with impunity.”

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