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TRAI’s anti-spam app removed from App Store


The spam reporting app developed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, DND 2.0, was removed from Apple’s App Store on December 31, 2021. The app was the result of one of Apple’s most significant battles with the regulator — after months of resisting authorities’ attempts at allowing the app to gain access to users’ entire message and call logs, Apple developed a workaround in 2018 that allowed the app to run without that bulk access.

At some point between April and August this year, though, the iOS version of the app was removed from the App Store and TRAI’s website, Entrackr found. It is unclear whether the app was removed by Apple or by TRAI. In April, Apple had announced that apps that don’t receive an update in three years would be removed from the App Store. But the app was removed from the App Store before this announcement.

An Apple spokesperson declined to comment to Entrackr on the app’s disappearance. In a response to an RTI Application, the telecom regulator said, “Due to technical reasons, TRAI has taken down the DND App from the Apple App Store on 31/12/2021.” The regulator did not elaborate what those technical reasons were, or if Apple had flagged issues that would make it impossible to keep the app up on the Play Store.

DND 2.0 was developed to combat an issue that TRAI — particularly under the chairmanship of RS Sharma — was hard at work to fight in 2017. As early as 2010, TRAI had instituted a procedure to report SMS spam, and passed regulations to ensure that user complaints were acted on within a few days’ time.

Until 2016, though, the only way to report spam was to manually send an SMS with the text of the message along with the name or number of the sender to a TRAI-designated short code. TRAI thought there should be an easier way, and so it launched the DND app. At that time, the app would automatically fetch a user’s entire SMS inbox and call logs, and generate and send the reporting SMS.

But Apple found this method an unacceptable infringement of user privacy — the company does not allow any developer to get users’ entire call and message logs for any reason. The stance infuriated Sharma. “No company can be allowed to be the guardian of a user’s data,” he complained in an interview.

iOS devices at the time constituted a small minority of the phones sold and used in India in 2017 — this remains the case today. But still, TRAI expended a fair amount of its regulatory power to put pressure on Apple to allow the app. Apple offered to have its technical team meet with TRAI officials to explain its stance in 2018, and a meeting may have been held at some point that year.

But TRAI’s dissatisfaction continued, and it proposed a regulation that would have paralyzed Apple’s business in India — the Draft Telecom Commercial Communications Customer Preference Regulations, 2018. The draft text included a provision that would have banned any phone from being sold in India that did not allow the DND app to run on it.

Apple pushed back. In a confidential filing responding to the draft regulation, Apple said, “Enabling [a mobile app to transmit a customer’s personally-identifiable information and usage history to a third party automatically, without the user directing that action] would open the door to Apple users being tracked by third parties in ways that the users have not invited and might not even realize, and that might expose them to harm.”

But the pressure worked to some extent. Apple made changes in its iOS 12 release that allowed developers to make an SMS reporting extension to the iPhone Messages app; this allowed users to individually select messages from within their message logs without having to first provide a copy of all of a user’s messages to a different app.

TRAI has been one of the few adopters of this extension, seeing as it seemed to be developed exclusively to put out a regulatory fire in India. It appeared satisfied enough with the move that it launched the extension on iOS and moved on from the issue — until its disappearance this year from the App Store.

Update (October 18): Updated with response from TRAI.

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