Aadhaar dare aside, RS Sharma's return as TRAI chief is good news for all

RS Sharma is well respected, but his recent Aadhaar dare has a lot of people worried.

Ram Sewak Sharma, the current chief of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has got a two-year extension and will remain the head of the organisation till 30 September 2020. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been sent the necessary communication in this matter. The reappointment has set a precedent, as this is the first time that a TRAI chief has served beyond three years.

Sharma was in the news recently for his Aadhaar dare, where he shared his Aadhaar number on Twitter and challenged anyone to cause him harm. This led to a lot of people accepting the challenge and using Sharma's Aadhaar details to register on AWS and Facebook to crediting money in his UPI account to making fake Aadhaar ID card with his details to even ordering a OnePlus 6 with a cash on delivery to his address.

RS Sharma, head of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), poses for a photograph at his office in New Delhi, India, March 16, 2018. Image: Reuters

RS Sharma, head of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), poses for a photograph at his office in New Delhi, India, March 16, 2018. Image: Reuters

While Sharma got a lot of flak for this stunt, as it also prompted regular users to share their Aadhaar numbers and challenge others, Sharma claims that no harm was caused to him. The only pain point, Sharma claimed, was having to dismiss all the two-factor authentication notifications on his phone as people tried to mess with his account settings on various platforms.

He said in an editorial, "It stands reaffirmed that Aadhaar is a safe and secure public utility: Do not be afraid to share your Aadhaar number, whenever and wherever needed. No harm can come to you due to this."

UIDAI later had to release a statement saying sharing your Aadhaar number was not really the wisest thing to do. In fact, UIDAI even stated that such activities are 'not in accordance with the law'.

(Also Read: TRAI chief RS Sharma cannot be prosecuted for disclosing his Aadhaar card details: Here's a look at reasons why)

But it must not be forgotten that it was under Sharma's leadership that India has got some of the most progressive regulations on net neutrality. During his tenure, TRAI has come out with public consultations on not just net neutrality, but also data privacy and flight telephony. It is also under Sharma's leadership that India has witnessed a telecom revolution in the last couple of years with data tariffs becoming more economical since the entry of Reliance Jio and competition from incumbents such as Airtel and Vodafone. Some of the consumer-facing apps such as Do Not Disturb, MySpeed have come under Sharma's rule.

Thumbs up for making TRAI consultations more transparent

According to Anita Gurumurthy, executive director, IT for Change, Sharma's tenure has been significant. "The pronouncement on zero-rated services, where Facebook was pulled up for orchestrating public opinion is a rather strong articulation of public interest in digital democracy. Also, TRAI is trailblazing for its public consultations. I am not sure it is his doing, but civil society really got its due place thanks to those transparent processes," said Gurumurthy.

There is a clear respect for Sharma for making TRAI consultations transparent. But his recent Aadhaar dare has many concerned.

Nayantara Ranganathan, programme manager, Freedom of Expression at the Internet Democracy Project, feels that Sharma has been great in terms of stewarding an open culture of consultations and taking a leadership position on issues such as net neutrality.

As cyber law expert Asheeta Regidi notes, UIDAI's response to Aadhaar number leaks has been inconsistent. They've taken harsh action against some — an entire agency was blacklisted for accidentally tweeting cricketer MS Dhoni's Aadhaar card — to claiming that Aadhaar numbers need not be private when a hacker claimed to have found 20,000 Aadhaar numbers, leaked from government websites, in three hours. Clearly, the UIDAI is picking its battles carefully.

"But recent events have shown that if you're the epitome of privilege in the Indian context — position, class, gender, caste — falling right within what is considered the norm in every way, then your sense of safety and security — or in infosec speak, your threat model —  is totally different from so many others, so it would be good to see him take a step back and recognise that," said Ranganathan.

Dr Abhishek Puri, who follows privacy-related matters very closely, also points out that it's unlikely that a public figure will get phished or suffer identity theft. For a normal Indian, this is a very real danger, especially among the more technologically challenged populace, who are only just acquiring their first digital devices.

COAI urges TRAI chief to articulate key focus areas 

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has had many disagreements on many policies that were formulated by TRAI. There are quite a few unresolved issues between the two bodies, which COAI is looking to discuss with TRAI. Most recently COAI was upset with the TRAI regulation on curbing telemarketing calls and messages. According to COAI, upgrading systems and involving the use of blockchain technology in this would cost the sector close to Rs 200-400 crore investment and 18 months for the rollout.

But its director general Rajan Mathews has good wishes for Sharma as he starts his new tenure. Congratulating Sharma on the new tenure, Mathews said, "Just like every new chief of TRAI who comes forward, we have also requested RS Sharma to articulate the key focus areas that TRAI will be looking at in the coming years so that COAI can work closely with TRAI on these matters. We hope to have a fruitful relationship and come up with solutions which are in our common interests."

According to COAI, the telecom sector's financial health, focus on 5G and challenges on spectrum pricing need to be addressed soon from an industry standpoint. COAI is looking forward to a stable regulatory environment which is necessary for growth in the sector.





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