It has been almost seven years since the administration in Kashmir started banning internet services in Kashmir for various reasons. Some of these shutdowns were for a short period while others lasted for three or even six months – in fact, the internet shutdown that was enforced after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 4, 2019 is still in place.
The contradictions in the availability of digital liberties in India continue to be glaring. Even as the state of Kerala declared the internet to be a basic right and approved a fiber optic network project to provide connectivity to every household in the state, Kashmir entered its fifth month of being in a digital void. The people in the valley who depend mostly on the internet for their survival have long been subjected to hardships. A recent study has found that 47 percent of India’s internet shutdowns took place in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state, where unrest is often followed by curfews and restrictions by the government.
As a local Kashmiri, I understand how tough it is to live without the internet in 21st century. I can see clearly how the people of other states benefit from internet services and how Kashmiris are deprived of these benefits. In one instance, I was at my home and emailed one document to a person outside the valley. The recipient asked me to revise the document and send it back. Just as I tried to respond, however, internet services went off. I was forced to travel 12 kilometers to reach another district – all just to send an email.
Those students from Kashmir studying in other states of India always prefer to remain outside of the valley because they know that when they travel to their respective homes, they will lose their internet connection. They will be deprived of online information and that might cost them a lot.
The main question here is to how the government can put to an end to these internet shutdowns. We will not take up the ethical question of whether internet access should be restricted, but instead offer options for achieving the government’s goals without severing internet access across the board. There are a lot of different measures and strategies that could be used instead, but before undertaking their implementation, the administration and the common people in the Kashmir Valley need to understand the role of these options.
The first strategy is to use content blocking techniques to block access to all social media platforms. However, while blocking access to these platforms is easy, the administration can’t stop people from accessing platforms with the help of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). So before banning social media platforms, blocking access to VPNs is necessary. In a nutshell, the authorities would need a team of technical experts and professionals to identify VPN apps and can help in blocking access to them.
Verification of social media accounts is yet another measure that could be adopted. In this case, people would be directed to link their social media accounts with valid proofs of ID like Aadhar and Voter IDs. This would help the administration in identifying the users spreading violence and only those users would be subjected to legal action. This measure would also help in stopping the spread of fake news across various online platforms.
Registering social media groups with the administration can be another powerful strategy. Before creating any social media group, the admins of the group will be asked to sign an undertaking mentioning that legal action will be taken against the administrator and the members of the group for spreading fake news. A member of the administration will be a member of the group in order to monitor the users and content. This will help stop the uploading of conflict videos or any fake news posts.
The fourth option is the use of what is generally known as “bandwidth throttling.” In this case, telecom operators or internet service providers (ISPs) are asked to lower the quality of their cell signals or internet speed. This strategy will help in preventing the uploading of videos on online platforms because of the low internet speed.
All these strategies can prevent the administration in Kashmir from needing to enforce any internet shutdown in future, while allowing it to achieve the same desired ends. Increased internet access, even under these restrictions, will provide new opportunities to local people. The time has come for the government to think about implementing any of these measures or strategies in order to ensure full internet access throughout the state.
Ishfaq Majid and Shazia Kouser are Ph.D. Scholars at Central University of Gujarat. The article has been written based on feedback received from Kashmiri based PG & M.Tech as well as students and Ph.D. scholars studying in various states of India.