After coming out with a slew of regulations to tackle the problem of unsolicited commercial communications (UCC) on telecom networks through SMS and calls, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) may study the possibility of dealing with UCC on over-the-top (OTT) service providers such as WhatsApp, a senior TRAI official told The Indian Express.
“Tackling UCC on WhatsApp should be relatively easier. It’s a closed system unlike SMS and users can easily block a number since it is not interoperable and is app to app. Unsolicited messages on a telecom network is (a part of Trai’s purview)… we will be holding consultations on the matter of OTT services,” the official said. When asked if the regulator will be looking at regulating OTT service providers entering agreements with entities for commercial communications, the official said: “We will see”.
The sector watchdog is soon expected to come out with a consultation paper on OTT services, however, it was unclear whether the UCC aspect will be dealt within the same paper or as a separate issue. As per TRAI, unsolicited calls and SMS are “serious problems”. It has set up a regulatory framework for subscribers to register for not getting calls and SMS from telemarketers, if one is registered with preference set as fully blocked. Notably, provisions are also there to set one or many out of pre-defined seven categories of fields or areas in which one may be interested to receive a telemarketer’s SMS.
In July, TRAI came out with new rules under The Telecom Commercial Communication Customer Preference Regulation, 2018 tightening the norms for all stakeholders in the telecom ecosystem including handset companies to have facilities for users to complaint against unsolicited calls or SMS. However, OTT players have thus far remained untethered from regulations as far as UCC is concerned. Last year, WhatsApp announced the launch of its Business service which already has over 3 million users globally. WhatsApp says: “With the (Business) app, businesses can interact with customers easily by using tools to automate, sort, and quickly respond to messages”.
The possibility of TRAI looking into pesky messages on apps such WhatsApp comes at a time when the Centre has red-flagged some of WhatsApp’s practices including the lack of traceability of messages to tackle the circulation of fake news. The company, which has been slapped with two notices by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology to check the spread of fake news, has taken a series of measures, including restricting the number of forwards and added ‘forward’ label to help users identify such messages. However, it has not accepted the government’s demand for traceability of messages saying creating such a software will go against the idea of user privacy and end-to-end encryption.