TRAI again slams Apple for blocking DND app on iPhones

Apple and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have locked horns over TRAI's anti-pesky call Do Not Disturb app, which Apple refuses to approve for sale on its App store.

Although the fight is not new and reports of it surfaced earlier when TRAI chairman R S Sharma slammed Apple a few weeks ago, now more details have emerged. While TRAI is irate that Apple is refusing to approve its anti-spam app that requires access to user data, including contacts, on the iPhones, Apple says the app violates its privacy policy.

According to Bloomberg, the standoff could impact Apple's efforts to expand in India, where half a billion smartphones will be sold by 2020. The Cupertino, California-based company has been in discussions with India's government to open retail stores and secure permission to sell used iPhones imported into the country. Apple has put forth a long list of demands, including tax breaks and other concessions, to set up manufacturing facilities.

''Nobody's asking Apple to violate its privacy policy,'' TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma said. ''It is a ridiculous situation, no company can be allowed to be the guardian of a user's data.''

The regulator is currently seeking public and stakeholder comments on a consultative paper on users' control over their personal information and rules on the flow of data through telecommunications networks. The process, scheduled to be completed in September, could eventually lead to new rules governing user data. That could also become part of the telecom licensing process, Sharma said.

Any new measures could affect not just Apple, but Facebook, Google and other technology companies that handle large amounts of private and personal information.

Apple hasn't publicly commented on the standoff, India Today points out that it has elaborate privacy guidelines as part of its overall rules and conditions for developers. These guidelines must be met before an app can get approval to be featured in the Apple iOS app store. Indications are that TRAI app doesn't meet Apple guidelines.

TRAI had in August accused Apple of ''data colonisation'' and being ''anti-consumer'' by not allowing the DND app (See: Trai irate as Apple continues to block anti-pesky call app).

Now Sharma has again gone on record accusing Apple of fighting its own users. He told Bloomberg that Apple's privacy rules are unfair to TRAI.

DND service shoddy
The TRAI anti-spam app has long been already available for Android users, but its user interface is reportedly not good and it doesn't work the way it ought to. The app has very poor ratings on the Google Play Store, suggesting that people are not particularly impressed with it.

Pesky calls remain widespread in India despite TRAI's efforts. Many Indian smartphone users too prefer apps like TrueCaller over TRAI's DND. Recently Google has inbuilt an anti-spam feature into Android phones, which allows users to specify calls from unknown numbers as spam.

Apple has reportedly told TRAI that the agency's anti-spam app violates privacy policies that the company has for the app store. Sharma said that TRAI officials have met Apple executives six times but to no avail.

Interestingly, Sharma is not pitching TRAI's fight with Apple as Indian government vs the iPhone maker. He is saying that the fight is between Apple and its users. "The problem of who controls user data is getting acute and we have to plug the loose ends," said Sharma. "This is not the regulator versus Apple, but Apple versus its own users."

This is an interesting angle to whole fight and also the one that is part of the Indian government's larger plan on data protection, ownership and privacy. Recently, TRAI came out with a comprehensive paper on "data ownership" that it wants debated.

In the paper, TRAI argues that users should own their own data and that they should have a say on how their data can be used.

Although, the idea sounds pro-consumers it could go either way. If India agrees to bring something like data ownership rules and make consumers sole owners of user data, it will take away a lot of power from companies like Apple, Google and Facebook.

They will then be no longer able to utilise user data the way they deem fit. But at the same time, it can also lead to lower standards of privacy by enabling government as well as local third-party agencies and companies to get access to user data because all they will require is a consent from average users who may not understand the privacy implications before sharing their data.

Also, Apple already seems to have a fairly robust privacy stance when it comes to users. Its guidelines to developers note, "Protecting user privacy is paramount in the Apple ecosystem, and you should use care when handling personal data to ensure you've complied with applicable laws and the terms of the Apple Developer Program License Agreement, not to mention customer expectations."

Then, the guidelines go on to detail how the information collected from users can be used and it limits a number of use cases that involves sharing data with third parties. It is possible that on many of these counts, the TRAI app falls short of Apple's requirements.

Finally, it is not just the talk. Apple actually walks its privacy talk. The company has built encryption inside the iPhone hardware, which has been designed in a way that even Apple can't encrypt user data if the passkey is not available.

Earlier, Apple and the US government fought over unlocking an iPhone seized from a terror suspect in the US. After a bitter public fight and with Apple refusing to co-operate with FBI, the US government gave up (See: FBI should unlock San Bernandino shooter's iPhone without Apple's help: Lawmaker

Also, this is not the first time when Apple has faced some issues with India government officials. Earlier the company requested special permissions before it would create the Apple stores in India but those permissions were reportedly denied by the government officials. The company also reportedly sought tax breaks for making the iPhone in India, but that request was denied.