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.