Srinagar: Months after the government restored low-speed internet with access to “whitelisted” websites in Kashmir, local people in the region are again grappling with limited access after a moment of breather provided by Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) has ended.
The administration Kashmir has enforced a crackdown on the use of VPNs with nearly all of them being blocked by telecom companies. Residents say that with the blocking of VPNs the access to even those “whitelisted” websites seem to have been curtailed as these websites do not open due to abysmally low bandwidth.
“I haven’t been able to open gmail application on my phone since the last two days. The case is same with most of the other whitelisted sites. It seems like the government has again blocked internet in Kashmir but, they have not announced it,” a Srinagar resident Adil said.
The internet issue has emerged as a major crisis in Kashmir that has affected students, professionals, businessmen and traders forcing many to relocate from the region. Many have suffered enormous economic losses and among them some have been forced to simply shut their businesses owing to the online clampdown. Several people have complained that it is increasingly becoming a more serious problem.
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For Junaid, the complete internet ban was not as frustrating as having limited access to it with slow speed. “I have developed a strange paranoia of looking at my phone to check if the internet speed picks up...this after installing and removing dozens of VPNs from my phone,” he said.
“My interaction with my parents about technology and phones were limited to whether phones were charged or not. Now we are having discussion about government orders and VPNs at the dinner table. The government has not changed our internet habits but its abnormal to see this issue entering our drawing room discussions,” the working professional told NewsClick.
In a government order by the Home Department on January 24, mobile data services were restored to all networks including pre-paid and pos-paid sim cards with “verified” credentials, nearly six months after it was completely banned with the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union-territories on August 5. The speed, however, was restricted to 2G only and people were given access to a few hundred websites. Since then, the government has been issuing follow-up orders maintaining the status-quo and only increasing the number of “whitelisted” websites which number a little over 1,600 now.
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Other than mobile internet, broadband connections which provided internet access to over 20,000 households and business establishments in the Valley continue to remain shut. According to a government official, there are 1,500 broadband connections which are working currently. The government has also directed telecom companies to install firewall to block any internet leakage especially through VPNs following which state-owned BSNL has acquired a costly solution from a US-based company.
“There is no internet working here, its merely a facade. The government is providing access to whosoever they want. We are witnessing a digital apartheid,” another resident from Srinagar uptown Daood said.
Earlier in February, the J&K Police’s cyber branch had registered a case FIR under Unlawful Activity Prevention Act (UAPA) against “various social media users” for defying the government orders and using social media platforms. The FIR was registered taking cognisance of social media posts by miscreants by use of different VPNs, the first FIR registered following a government notification.
“There is a lot of confusion as on one hand, the government claims the situation is normal while on the other they continue with the restrictions. The access is limited and they have now blocked the VPNs as well. They are also arresting people who misuse the internet but, there is still no respite,” a Valley-based trader told NewsClick.
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