iPhone Users in India Could Face Deactivation by Telcos Due to TRAI’s New Regulation

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India’s telecom regulator has announced new rules that look set to escalate its ongoing battle with Apple. If enforced, the regulation could lead to deactivation of services of iPhone users in the country, unless Apple blinks first in a battle that has been brewing for quite some time.

The Telecom Commercial Communication Customer Preference Regulation, 2018 released by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Thursday is “proposed to curb the problem of unsolicited commercial communication,” or as you and I know it, pesky calls and text messages. The provision that directly impacts Apple calls for telcos to “derecognise” devices that – among other things – do not allow installation of an app developed by the regulator.

Part of TRAI’s regulation reads:

Every Access Provider shall ensure, within six months’ time, that all smart phone devices registered on its network support the permissions required for the functioning of such Apps as prescribed in the regulations 6(2)(e) and regulations 23(2)(d);

Provided that where such devices do not permit functioning of such Apps as prescribed in regulations 6(2)(e) and regulations 23(2)(d), Access Providers shall, on the order or direction of the Authority, derecognize such devices from their telecom networks.
The regulations 6 and 23 referred to in the section above relate to various ways in which customers can change their communication settings and also report entities that violate them, with regulations 6(2)(e) and 23(2)(d) specifically referring to a mobile app developed by the regulator, or an entity approved by the regulator.

TRAI already has an app on the Google Play Store that allows users to register for ‘Do Not Disturb’, a preference that telemarketers are required to obey, but one that’s largely ignored in a country where pesky calls and text messages are a huge menace. The Android app also allows users to report calls and text messages that violate the DND flag to their service provider.

TRAI wants to release a similar app for iOS but Apple doesn’t allow third-party apps to access call and messaging data, which has become a point of contention between Apple and the India regulator.

Apple has gradually opened up its operating system to allow third-party applications to plug in to the calling and messaging frameworks in a limited way, with CallKit in iOS 10 and SMS filtering in iOS 11. iOS 12, the upcoming version of Apple’s operating system for mobile devices and tablets, is set to bring the ability to report pesky calls and text messages in a seamless way from within the operating system. The move was seen, at least in part, as a bid to satisfy the Indian regulator’s requirements.

But with Thursday’s move, it seems the Indian regulator is either unsatisfied with the provisions iOS 12 will bring, or not willing to wait and build an app that would utilise those capabilities.

A long time coming
The India regulator has been loggerheads with Apple over the issue for over a year. In September last year, Bloomberg reported that Apple’s refusal to approve the government’s anti-spam app was infuriating regulators, potentially even “harming the company’s efforts to sell more products in the country.”

Apple was then said to be working with the regulator to help build an app that would satisfy its requirements. An Apple spokesman confirmed in November last year that iOS 11’s spam filtering messages would help the regulator build the app, but the issue of reporting spam calls remained unaddressed. With iOS 12, Apple looks set to close that gap as well.

“This has now become more of an ego tussle between Apple and the regulator,” Neil Shah of Counterpoint Research had said at the time.

In March, reports indicated that TRAI and Apple were at loggerheads once again. Apple told Reuters at the time the Indian government’s app “as envisioned violates the privacy policy” of its App Store. Apple added that it would “continue discussing ways they can design their app to keep users’ personal data safe.”

“We will take appropriate legal action,” TRAI chief R.S. Sharma told Reuters in an interview. “This is unjust, it shows the approach and attitude of this company.”

Then in May, TRAI released a draft version of the regulation that was ratified on Thursday, with the contentious clause calling for operators to ‘derecognise’ devices very much in place.

Other reactions
In a letter to the telecom regulator on June 11, Indian Cellular Association (ICA), a body that represents the interests of mobile phone manufactures and other players in the Indian market, had noted its objections to TRAI’s proposals. The letter said “it would be patently wrong to give an powers in the hands of telecom operators to start judging which device should continue and which should be ‘derecognised from its telecom network’” and the the regulator “had no jurisdiction over device manufactures.”

The body added that TRAI’s regulation places “millions of consumers in harm’s way” who “may simply not want to have such an app on their devices, or they may be on a platform that does not support the functionality in the manner in which TRAI is describing it.”

Interestingly, the letter also had what seems like a clear reference to the upcoming iOS 12 release where it talks about customers who “may not wish to upgrade their current devices to the next level of the platform, which in turn, could become a preconditions for installing such apps as described in the TRAI draft regulation” being ‘derecognised’ due to a choice made by the customers.

The regulator seems to have disregarded those comments and is going ahead with provisions that would directly impact iPhone users. According to TRAI, regulation 34 that calls for telcos to ‘derecognise’ smart devices without its app “shall come into force after 30 days from the date of publication of these regulations in the Official Gazette.”

Airtel, in its response to TRAI’s draft regulation had noted, among other things, that “the suggestion of a new app (clause 6(2)(e) for registering the preference tantamount to creating an additional set-up and infrastructure without any value addition. This can be done away with as the operators can just sync this feature in their existing apps.”

Other telcos like Vodafone have commented that, among other things, TRAI’s regulation would require “huge cost” to be implemented.

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