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India restores internet access in Kashmir

March 5, 2020

For the past seven months, social media sites have been blocked and internet access restricted in India-administered Kashmir. However, authorities are now able to track internet users.

n this photo taken on December 3, 2019, Kashmiri students use the internet at a Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar,
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Mustafa

Indian authorities lifted a ban on social media and restored full internet access in Kashmir on Wednesday evening, seven months after the disputed region was locked down and stripped of its partial autonomy. The order, which still places certain restrictions on mobile internet services, is only valid till March 17, unless extended.

"We have already started switching the service on,” said an official at the state-run BSNL, one of the major internet service providers in the region. Another official at a private internet service provider in the main city of Srinagar also said on Wednesday that access to social media had been restored on its networks.

Several Kashmiris have been using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent government censorship. Soon after the ban was lifted, the Twitter handle of Mehbooba Mufti – one of the three main opposition leaders in Kashmir detained by the government since the August – called out the "futility" of the social media ban.

The Twitter handle is managed by Mufti’s daughter, Iltija. "My mother last tweeted on 5th August post abrogation of Article 370. Today as I tweet for the first time from Kashmir post decriminalisation of social media, Im swept by saudade & painful nostalgia. Will we ever heal? When will this nightmare end, (sic.)" she wrote.

Open access with conditions

Access to broadband internet in the restive region comes with a condition: MAC-binding. This forces a particular device to access internet from a specific IP address. If either the MAC (Media Access Control) address or the IP address changes, the device will not be able to access internet. MAC-binding will also enable authorities to trace a device on the basis of its online activity.

Read more: Kashmiris feel 'alienated' 6 months after India 'annexation'

Mobile internet services too will be availble only on post-paid connections. Pre-paid connections will not have access to internet "unless verified as per the norms applicable to post-paid connections," the order said. 

People queue up to go online at a government set-up internet cafe in Budgam.
People lined up outside a government set-up internet cafe in Indian-administered KashmirImage: Reuters/A.

Further, internet speed is restricted to second generation 2G networks, while the high-speed 4G networks will remain blocked.

Longest internet shutdown by a democracy

In August, authorities halted internet, landline and mobile services in what was then India’s only Muslim majority state. It imposed the unprecedented blackout under the pretext of security concerns. The administration in the territory said it feared the internet could be used to propagate terrorism and incite locals.

The internet shutdown in Kashmir was the longest such ban imposed by a democracy. India faced criticism from lawmakers in the European Union and the US, who repeatedly called on the government to curb restrictions.

Read more: Five excuses governments (ab)use to justify Internet shutdowns

Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an influential trade body, has estimated the cost of the six-month long communications clampdown at more than $2.4 billion (€2.2 billion) with nearly 500,000 job losses.

Internet restrictions in the Kashmir valley were partially eased in January, following a review order by the Indian Supreme Court. "Suspension of the internet for an indefinite period is not permissible, it can be for a limited time period and is subject to judicial review," the court said, adding that freedom of speech includes the right to internet access.

However, social media sites that allowed "peer-to-peer" communications remained blocked. In fact, Kashmiris initially had access to only about 300 government approved "whitelisted" websites.

adi/aw (AP, AFP)