Internet restoration in Jammu and Kashmir is an illusion; it does not reinstate complete access

Mukhtar Khan / AP
12 March, 2020

In August 2019, the Indian government abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and enforced a communication blackout in the region. This included an internet shutdown, the longest ever imposed in a democracy. Seven months later, on 4 March, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued an order directing the restoration of internet access, with certain restrictions.

However, the nature of the relief is extremely limited. It appears that the government is, in a way, weaponising the internet and undermining the fundamental rights of citizens in the world’s largest democracy.

The order reinstated internet access with restrictions. It restricted the speed to 2G, and stated that prepaid SIM cards would not have access to the internet unless they are verified as per the norms applicable for post-paid connections. Furthermore,  internet connectivity will be available only with Mac-binding, a system of pairing a device’s media access control, or Mac address, to its internet protocol, or IP address. These restrictions are problematic for several reasons. Instead of a measure that truly restores freedom and access in the region, the order is a mere palliative that creates an illusion of these ideals. As it stands, the order limits where and how citizens may express themselves or access information online.

The 2G restriction makes it significantly difficult for users to access platforms, such as social media websites and online news channels that are primarily designed for 3G and 4G. Additionally, while basic communication may be possible, 2G hampers the ability to view and share pictures and videos. It also reduces the ability of Jammu and Kashmir residents to exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression. Arguably, this restriction is an extension of the government’s attempts to manipulate the exposure of ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir and control the mainstream media by imposing communication gags and constraining journalists.

The second restriction—disallowing internet connectivity for unverified prepaid SIM cards—has the effect of perpetuating the internet ban to some extent for the majority of internet users in Jammu and Kashmir. More people access the internet through mobile devices than computers. According to a report in the Economic Times, India had 566 million internet users as of December 2018, of which 97 percent accessed the internet through mobile phones. Further, the lion’s share of the total telecom subscribers comprises prepaid SIM card holders. According to a report published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the statutory authority that oversees the telecommunications industry, the share of prepaid subscribers among mobile users was approximately 95 percent at the end of September 2019. Although that reflects the countrywide share, these statistics are presumably indicative of mobile use patterns in individual states and union territories including Jammu and Kashmir.

Even though the government order reinstates internet services for mobile phones in theory, the scope of its reach, in practice, remains a concern. A large part of Jammu and Kashmir’s population will likely continue to face procedural hardships in the quest to gain internet access to platforms such as social media websites that enable greater participation in a democracy.

The third restriction could potentially reduce the user’s ability to access the internet anonymously or privately and bring all online activities within the scope of surveillance. The Media Access Control, or Mac, address is a hardware identification number that is unique to each device. When a device is connected to the internet, it is assigned an internet protocol address by the Internet Service Provider, or ISP. Mac-binding is the process of pairing the IP and Mac addresses such that any activity on the internet can be directly linked to a specific equipment. Users will only be able to access the internet with the paired Mac and IP address combination. If either of these addresses changes, the computer would no longer be able to use the internet. The most common method of implementing such a binding is to have the ISP assign a static IP address to a device instead of the dynamic IP addresses that are typically assigned to a device every time it connects to a network.

The benefit for authorities is that it makes it more feasible for them to monitor online activities and trace them back to the specific systems. It offers more reliable geolocation services and eliminates the user’s ability to secure privacy or anonymity by using Virtual Private Networks. VPNs conceal IP addresses and protect data by using encryption and proxy servers. Permitting access to the internet only through methods that can be constantly surveilled by authorities could violate the right to privacy. Further, it has a chilling effect on free speech because there cannot be any meaningful exercise of the right to freedom of expression with the possibility of surveillance looming large.

Taken together, these restrictions fundamentally alter the role of the internet in a democracy. Internet regulation may often be necessary for the maintenance of law and order but in the absence of the highest standards of accountability, such measures can easily transform from being implemented in public interest to being against it. While, the government may seek to justify the continued restrictions on such grounds, the effect is to maintain the clampdown on the freedom of expression.

The digital age is unprecedented both in the magnitude of the freedom of expression that it enables, and the extent to which it can jeopardise human rights and democratic procedures in the absence of appropriate regulation. When used effectively, the internet can be an empowering platform through which more citizens can exercise their fundamental rights. However, through measures akin to those India has imposed onto Jammu and Kashmir, the government can also use it as a tool to undermine rights and render violent realities invisible by manipulating their existence in the virtual space. The virtual sphere is no longer an adjunct to the social and political lives of citizens; it would be a mistake not to recognise the defining role it now plays in a democracy.

While the 4 March government order certainly provides some reprieve to Jammu and Kashmir, it should not be construed as an end to the internet shutdown. To do so would be to redefine what it means to have “internet access” in a manner that normalises connectivity that is accompanied by procedural hurdles and threats to civil rights and liberties. Particularly in a democracy, there ought to be safeguards against internet regulation that aggravates the power imbalance between the state and its citizens. Especially for historically disadvantaged communities, digital suppression acts as a weapon that perpetuates marginalisation. The absence of unimpeded access to all parts of the internet for every person in Jammu and Kashmir, devoid of the restrictions set out in the government order, is in a sense, the absence of democracy itself.