The revised Communication Convergence Bill ready for passage in the
Indian Parliament has introduced some vital clarifications that deal with
Internet Content that needs to be taken note of by the community.
The basic scope of the Bill is to deal with Licensing, Code of
Operation and Enforcement of the regulation. The functional activities
covered are those coming under the "Convergent Medium" consisting of the
Telecom, Broadcasting and the Internet.
It must be remembered that in the Indian scenario, the Telecom and Broadcasting
started off as monopoly Government activities with high level
of regulation when they passed on to the private sector. In these sectors,
most operational changes now contemplated may actually lead to more freedom
than before. However, the Internet has originated from a state of absolute
freedom and any regulation is a curtailment of existing freedom.
Bringing about a convergence in regulation between these differing media
means that giving more freedom to the Broadcast and Telecom media and curtailing
the freedom of the Internet media. The concept of Regulation of the Convergent
media is therefore fundamentally "Restrictive" on the Internet media.
A more easily understandable example in the Indian context is attempting
a "Convergence of the powers of the Indian States including Jammu and Kashmir".
If we attempt a common law for all states of India and all citizens of
India without any special rights to any minorities, groups or regions,
then the State of Jammu and Kashmir has to meet the regulatory convergence
point some where higher up on the regulation scale while other States will
meet the midpoint below their existing position in the regulatory scale.
The sensitivities that would be respected and accommodated if ever such
a convergence is attempted should be the guideline for the common regulation
now attempted on the Convergent medium in India.
If Internet is considered as a "Public Broadcast Medium" with
International uplinking facility, then each Individual Internet customer
is actually connected to a facility that can not only receive broadcast
but also uplink broadcast. Every individual Netizen is therefore a "Publisher"
or "Broadcaster". Even if a person doesn't operate a web site, he does
broadcast over e-mail, Message Board, or a Chat.
If a person is maintaining a personal web site, he becomes a "Channel
owner" like Star TV or Zee TV. Some like naavi.org may be have small
audience and some like rediff.com or Sify.com may have larger audience.
But just as Star TV and Maharshi TV may have differing audience but similar
legal status, all web sites will have similar legal status.
While the individuals and the web site owners will now fall under the
category of "Content Application Providers" in the eyes of Communication
Convergence Bill, the ISPs, Cyber Cafes, as well as Cable Operators
and Companies who provide Internet connectivity through a LAN, fall under
different categories of "Network Service Providers" or "Network Infrastructure
Providers". Some web sites who provide services such as free web pages,
message boards etc may fall under the category of "Network Application
Consequent to the Communication Convergence Bill, every form of broadcast
over Internet will become a subject matter of regulation. "Receiving
E-Mails" which is like seeing a TV broadcast and "Sending E-Mails" which
is like broadcast with uplinking from Indian soil will now have to be distinguished
for regulatory purpose. "Surfing" with two way packet exchange is automatically
an "Interactive Real Time Tele Communication" and all regulations applicable
to Long Distance telephony will have to apply. Hosting a web site whether
Personal, Professional or News oriented, will all need to be regulated
on par with Star TV or Zee TV.
According to the Communication Convergence Bill, license is required
for using any wireless equipment, to provide and own Networking Infrastructure
Services, Networking Services, Network Application services and Content
Application services. The Content has to follow a "code" meant for programmes
and advertisements . Any violation of the provisions of licensing or code
or any other operational aspects provided in the Bill is punishable
with fine, imprisonment etc.
As a result of these provisions, unless specifically exempted, every
activity including "Surfing" and "E-Mail Usage" will require "License",
is subject to "Code for the Content".
If the present opinion of the world that "Internet content is Personal
Speech" is taken into account, every regulation attempted under the Bill
is a regulation of "Speech" and violates the fundamental principles of
Unfortunately, instead of attempting to provide exemptions for Internet
related activities from various regulations, the Communication Convergence
Bill particularly in the amended form takes more efforts to include several
Internet related activities under the provisions of the Bill.
For example, the explanations added to Chapter VII, Section 26 (6) (d)
specifically says that
"To Provide Content Application Service" includes Internet
based Content on web sites,
By virtue of such inclusions read along with the other provisions of the
Bill brings the Internet activity of individuals under every regulation
contemplated in the Bill.
"To provide Network application Service includes IT Enabled Services
such as Call Centers, E-Commerce, Tele banking, Tele Education, Tele Trading,
Tele Medicine" etc.
It is obvious that the legislation has been drafted under the confusion
that every Internet Content provider is like Rediff.com or Sify.com with
a subscriber base equal to major Channels like Star TV or Major Print publications
like Times of India. Hence they are found worthy of all kinds of licensing,
accountability standards and legal responsibilities relevant to such major
The reality is that Internet is, by basic concept a network of millions
of naavi.org like sites which are expressions of individuals and in effect
are nothing but "Speech". If some of them become "Portals" it is like people
congregating to listen to Nani Palkhiwala on Taxation. What they say still
is "Speech" and unless the speech degenerates into "False Propaganda" with
sinister motives, (eg: hinduism.org or dalitstan.org) , they deserve to
be protected under the concept of "Freedom of Speech" and freed from
the regulations contemplated under the Communication Convergence Bill.
In summary, the very basic premise of the Communication Convergence
Bill that attempts to bring a "Homogeneous Regulatory Framework" for the
Convergent medium is a fundamentally unsound proposition and will
be a serious threat to the freedom of Netizens. If the Netizens are not
given the exemptions that are legitimately due to them, the Bill deserves
to be buried in its entirety rather than exist in its controversial form.
July 26 2001
Text of the Revised Bill Available here at India TV.com