US technology giant Apple and India’s telecoms regulator are at loggerheads over the development of a government anti-spam mobile application, with user privacy at the heart of a deepening rift between the 2 sides.
The most recent impasse comes following Apple in October agreed to provide some aid to the regulator to tap into new iOS characteristics to build the “Do Not Disturb” app, which allows users to report unsolicited calls and text messages as spam.
At issue was Apple’s contention that allowing the app extensive access to customers’ call and text logs could compromise privacy.
The arguments are the most recent example of challenges faced by global technology players, who frequently need to balance user privacy while managing requests from governments and regulators around access to content on apparatus. In July, Apple removed apps from the Chinese Program Store that helped users browse the Internet privately so as to abide by a new cybersecurity law.
In India, despite October’s agreement, both sides have not met since November, and also the Indian regulator advised Apple in January it had been still waiting for “fundamental clarifications” on what exactly can the iOS version of its app provide, according to a government source with direct knowledge and an email market seen by Reuters.
Apple said it had been working together with authorities engineers and might “continue discussing ways they could design their program to keep users’ personal data secure”.
Apple’s stance, though, has irked the head of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), R.S. Sharma, who says he’ll consult his legal staff on how Apple may be pushed to help develop the application more swiftly.
“That is unfair, it shows the approach and attitude of this firm.”
He didn’t elaborate on what action the regulator could take.
Apple didn’t comment on Sharma’s opinions, but said that it shared TRAI’s aim of shielding clients from unwanted calls and messages.
Millions of Indians are inundated by telemarketing calls and other unsolicited text messages every day in the world’s second-largest wireless telecoms market behind China.
The Android edition of TRAI’s “Do Not Disturb” app was introduced in 2016. When opened to the first time, it requires users to give the app permissions to access contacts and view text messages and then allows users to report them as spam.
Google has said keeping users’ information secure is its high priority and the company believes in “openness and at the capability of users to make downloading and purchasing decisions without top-down enforcement or censorship”.
Apple said it wouldn’t change its instructions to allow any app access to contacts, see call logs or view text messages as those functionalities violate a user’s data security and privacy.
“Users should be responsible for the information,” he said.
Apple said it has offered to have its specialized teams match TRAI, but a government source said the regulator has been awaiting more details from the company prior to proceeding.
The tussle comes at a crucial time for Apple since it seems to India as a key growth market where it’s also in talks to expand iPhone manufacturing.
TRAI has in the past taken decisions that have dented the plans of other technology giants. In 2015, it involves the suspension of Facebook’s pared-back free Internet service, Free Basics, and weeks after it hurried the organization’s plans by supporting net neutrality – a principle which says Internet service providers should deal with all traffic on their networks equally – effectively barring the service.
Things could be harder in Apple’s case, nonetheless.
Any outright legal challenge by Sharma – an official who has previously worked as the national IT secretary – is very likely to be harder for TRAI to pursue since it directly governs only accredited telecom suppliers.
Nevertheless, Sharma could request the department of telecommunications – that he works closely together with – to invoke a decades-old law which allows the government to enforce regulations on handset makers, based on two Indian attorneys who specialize in technology coverage.
“It is likely to be a public relations battle against Apple instead of a legal one,” said Kunal Bajaj, a former TRAI consultant.