Sunday, Jan 26, 2003
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AS PRIVATISATION gathers momentum in the telecom sector, there are growing doubts over several key issues relating to the rights of consumers.
Despite assertions by successive Governments regarding introduction of new age legislation and the setting up of an organisation to referee over telecom companies, we do not appear to have travelled very far towards ensuring privacy and a fair deal for telecom subscribers.
Recent incidents of invasion of privacy and numerous complaints from subscribers about the service point to the need for a debate on the working of private phone companies. Rarely addressed by political parties and civil society, the two subjects have to be brought into the public domain as soon as possible for restitution. As more and more people turn to higher technology-based phones of all varieties due to falling rates, privacy and grievance redress will become more and more contentious.
Grievance redress, especially when more and more individuals opt for corporate-operated phone services, is a major issue. But more emotive is the right to privacy. There is no definite indication that privacy is being respected as per the Supreme Court's guidelines issued in 1996. As India's cream shifts to cellular phones as the preferred mode of communication, more and more instances come to light of not just security agencies but even cellular company employees selling telephone records of rival companies for a consideration or just listening in on conversations.
In one celebrated case, that is still talked about in hushed tones because of the people involved, a top notch political fixer persuaded his friend, who owned a cellular company, to furnish him with transcripts of the conversations his female acquaintance had with a top IT company executive. The woman came to know of the snooping and it required the combined efforts of several worthies to douse the fires.
Reliable sources also affirm that the recent attempt to overthrow the BSP-BJP coalition Government in Uttar Pradesh was incapacitated because of `informal' cell phone tapping. The phone records of a hotelier-turned-politician, who was among those financing the rebels, were turned over to politicians interested in keeping Mayawati in power. From then on it was not too difficult to choke the flow of funds.
In due course, the scandal and the revolt were forgotten. But there have been occasions when the issue of privacy while using cellular phones has threatened to burst into the public domain. The first time, when the late South African cricket captain, Hansie Cronje's cellular phone was tapped and later when a cellular phone company allegedly gave the police cell phone records of a person who claimed that the Delhi police had in cold blood gunned down two unarmed persons in the basement of Ansal Plaza. On the basis of the records of the cell phone which also gave away its carrier's movements, the police claimed that the alleged eyewitness was not at the site of the encounter with the alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists.
On both occasions, statist and right-wing mentality prevailed over the voices of dissent raised by civil rights activists. Since the police were proved right in the Cronje case, the merit of tapping the phone was not investigated further. In the shoot-out case too, perhaps the whistle-blower could not stand the might of the state. He did serve notice to the cellular company accusing it of breaching his right to privacy but little was heard after that. Had the person persisted with his query "under what authority of law has your company divulged the private information and details of the mobile phone?" who knows, the lid may have been blown of a shadowy practice that appears to be increasingly used by some companies.
Against these examples, security agencies can cite several instances to prove that tapping of cellular phones has yielded rich dividends in the form of nabbing elusive criminals. But that is hardly of comfort to citizens who suspect that their right to privacy may be getting violated, not just in the national interest but by other vested interests. To set the record straight, many companies have carried forward their culture of corporate uprightness to cellular operations as well. But there are several others who, to put it mildly, would never qualify for a corporate uprightness award. And it is they who are cause for concern because India's cream relies predominantly on mobile phones for honing business strategies, striking political alliances or simply indulging in intimate conversation.
The need to bring the issue under the public spotlight has become more pressing because global trends show that fixed-line phones will be replaced in urban areas by mobile phones and India may be no exception to the trend. But being privately owned, cell companies are more vulnerable to the dictates of security agencies which have extracted 180 lines from each of them for tapping.
The Supreme Court, while upholding tapping, had set out the guidelines in 1996 when cell phones were just making their appearance. With more subscribers forecast to graduate to cell phones, this would be an appropriate time to not only bring new technology into the ambit of judicial guidelines but also examine whether previous ones were effective.
According to Rajeev Dhavan, lawyer, "the system of review set up by the Supreme Court enabling those who authorise taps to review their own orders with a conclave of colleagues is arbitrary, secretive, shabby and an insult to the protection of privacy and civil liberties. There was a time when many who rule the country today were convinced that India's apparatus of phone tapping was invidious. But now they are in-charge of this form of state surveillance."
As compared to fixed phones, tapping of cellular phones can lead to greater invasion of privacy. Cellular phone company computers can record millions of movements going back to more than a year and therefore the location of a user at any given time or date can be traced to within a few hundred meters of the exact spot. Security agencies are understood to be actively making what are called "plotter's charts" in their terminology. The cell phone of a person visiting the national capital can be locked in their beams by sleuths and even if he does not discuss confidential issues, the signals can track his movements.
National security was an overriding concern that forced previous victims of phone tapping including Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani to go slow on installing safety mechanisms when they took over the reins of the Government. However, sophistication in tapping will ensure that in spite of procedures to protect the average citizen from indiscriminate tapping, intelligence agencies can carry on with tapping that would help them avert threats from anti-national elements. For instance, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is known to possess computers that can catch a key word in a conversation and then record the entire conversation. The computer is fed with the name of the wanted person and any conversation where that person's name is used will be recorded.
The Supreme Court in its 1996 review did not suggest periodic reviews or independent panels that could look into the malaise of indiscriminate tapping. With tens of thousands of circuits having already been allocated to intelligence agencies, and more to be provided by new phone companies entering the market, this could be the right time to prevent India from becoming an eavesdroppers' paradise. The review must also ensure that owners and employees of cellular companies are denied the pleasure of delving in their backyards for details of persons called by a particular subscriber. There is an urgent need to shore up public confidence by prescribing guidelines because several of the entrants are known to have taken questionable short-cuts on their way to becoming mega corporations.
As is the case with tapping, the issue of a satisfactory subscriber grievance redress machinery has also not been the subject of public discourse. Even trenchant critics of liberalisation of telecom services and parliamentary committees have not applied themselves to suggesting a suitable framework.
Though state-run companies have earned the reputation of being sluggish, the years of liberalisation have seen a remarkable improvement in their complaints machinery. The Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited and, to a lesser extent, the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited have used computerisation to ensure that the fault reporting system became more streamlined. Even otherwise, the complaints mechanism of these companies has matured over time and is much broader since the two companies are answerable to Parliament. But that is not the case with private firms. The increase in complaints against billing is directly proportionate to the rise in the customer base. A little while ago, consumers were bewildered by the large number of tariff packages offered by the companies but that was set right by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). However, consumers still complain about unexplained charges for roaming.
The TRAI and greater competition do keep the companies alert. However, grievance redress panels on a countrywide basis are required. Instead of opting for bureaucrats and judicial authorities, easily accessible consumer forums are required. The entry of new companies should serve to accelerate the thought process in this regard because many of them have asked subscribers to pay with post-dated cheques. As a result there are bound to be more disputes.
The TRAI has covered some ground in this matter. Due to budgetary constraints it has largely opted for indirect monitoring of broad customer satisfaction criteria such as network performance from the point of view of call success rate, service access delays, call drop rate and percentage of connections with good voice quality. It is expected that periodic rating of companies on the basis of this criteria will force them to provide efficient service.
The TRAI itself admits that this is not a complete exercise since the vital component of customer feedback is missing. It has proposed empanelling independent agencies that could carry out surveys of customers of each company. But even this is incomplete since individual subscribers are left unattended. Due to extra costs involved, private companies are bound to resist setting up easily accessible complaints cells on the lines of those being run by BSNL and MTNL all over the country. A public debate on enabling a subscriber with even the smallest compliant to get a hearing is of vital importance.
A common refrain is of existing help line numbers of cellular companies turning hostile when subscribers report unexplained debiting from cash cards or seek urgent refund of security deposits. The TRAI has addressed itself to this aspect also. It has prescribed strict billing complaint resolution norms such as asking cell companies to resolve 99 per cent of all complaints within four weeks and cent per cent within a year. The billing complaints too must be less than 2 per 1,000 bills issued. But as is the case with network management criteria, the TRAI would have to process a mass of data to arrive at national or operator-specific figures. The individual subscriber has been left in the cold. There is an urgent need to correct this situation especially when there are one crore cellular subscribers already and, if experts are to be believed, the number will double by next year.
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