BENGALURU — The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has warned the US smartphone maker Apple, that if it doesn’t allow a TRAI’s Do-Not-Disturb (DND) app on its phones, it would ask telecom companies like Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance’s Jio to deregister iPhone from their networks.

The two-year-old fight between TRAI and Apple over SPAM calls and messages has culminated into TRAI coming out with the Telecom Commercial Communication Customer Preference Regulation, 2018 which “proposes to curb the problem of unsolicited commercial communication,” popularly known as spam calls and text messages. This 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.

Apple vs TRAI

Apple and TRAI have been at loggerheads over the issue of allowing a DND app on iPhones for over two years. While the regulator has been asking the company to allow the application, Apple has declined to do so citing users’ privacy.

Back in November 2017, a Reuters report suggested that the two parties had come to an agreement over the issue and that Apple will help the government in building an anti-spam mobile application for the iOS platform.

Apple, however, had then admitted that the iOS platform did not allow some of the government requests such as allowing call logs data on the DND app.

The application has been available on Android for quite some time but Apple hasn’t allowed on its iPhones, citing users’ privacy.

What the DND app is all about

The TRAI has made an app called DND, which is now called DND 2.0 after the latest update. It is available as a free download on Google Play Store.

The telecom operator wants all phones to have either a TRAI-developed or TRAI-approved mobile application that allows users to report unwanted calls and messages. However, Apple has refused to allow this app in the iOS App Store as it believes that the TRAI app (which seeks the call and message records of a user), is a privacy risk.

Reports inform that the Indian telecom regulator wanted 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 TRAI.

Impact on users

If Apple and TRAI fail to come to an agreement, the move will impact millions of iPhone users in India.

The Indian Cellular Association (ICA) in response to the draft policy had criticised the regulator for asking service providers to block access to devices on failure to incorporate DND apps.

“Even though the ICA appreciates the intentions of TRAI in this regard, it is clear from the TRAI Act that the powers are limited to regulating telecom service providers or licensees. There has been no precedent in the past wherein the TRAI has attempted to regulate device manufacturers, simply because the Authority realises that its powers in this regard are limited by the statute,” said the industry body pointing out that the regulator has no jurisdiction over device manufacturers.

The ICA also highlighted that the move could have “unintended consequences of placing millions of customers in harm’s way. This because the customers may simply not want to have such apps on their devices, or they may be on a platform that does not want the functionality in the manner in which TRAI is describing it.”

Another industry body representing top telecom players, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), had said that the telecom service providers have control over the network but they cannot take responsibility of elements outside their network. It also pointed out that the service providers don’t have control on the over-the-top (OTTs) applications which a consumer is using on his/her handset.

Updated iOS

It has been in the news that Apple is building a newer version -iOS 12. The latest update comes with a “spam reporting” feature. The implementation of the feature, however, is quite different from Android’s, as it will require users to enable the feature via the app extension.

The extension description reads as “to report SMS messages and calls, the user must enable an Unwanted Communication extension in the Settings app. They can only enable one Unwanted Communication extension at a time. In order to report calls, the user swipes left on an item in the ‘Recents’ list and selects ‘Report’. For SMS messages, they press the Report Messages button when it appears in the Messages transcript. Users can also select messages by long-pressing a message and selecting additional messages, then selecting Report Messages.When the user reports an SMS message or call, the system launches your Unwanted Communication extension. Your extension gathers additional information from the user, before deciding whether to report or block the number.

It is yet to be seen whether the TRAI will accept the extension as the replacement for the DND app.

And the updated DND 2.0

The regulator in the meanwhile has also updated its DND application.

The latest version (v2.0) is said to be built from ground up and comes with “intelligent feature”.

The updated app comes with “an intelligent spam detection engine (for SMS only) to assist the subscriber in reporting” and “crowdsourcing of data about offending messages and calls to speed up detection of unregistered telemarketers”.

“TRAI has already explored, with encouraging results, the use of machine learning technologies to classify messages in its DND 2.0 App. These regulations would enable development of newer tools based on Artificial Intelligence or other technologies for an easier subscriber experience in setting preferences, governing consent and reporting violations. As a result of the platform approach espoused by TRAI, where functions are unbundled and access to information is controlled based on permissions, all such solutions would henceforth be possible for third parties to develop. And they would be able to demonstrate the efficacy and security of their solutions in the controlled environment of the Regulatory Sandbox, before products are released for wider use,” said the TRAI release.

— Sufia Tippu is a freelance tech journalist based in India contributing to EE Times India