Initially, it was a battle for coming out of the wrong side of the digital divide. Now with 2G at play, it is the crisis of piercing the firewall. The virtual battle is now ragging between the law enforcing agencies and the VPN developers, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
It took 167 days for the UT administration in Jammu and Kashmir to restore 2G internet services in a phased manner on January 18, 2020. More than a month later, Kashmir has official access to around 1500 whitelisted websites. The weekly reviews add on innocuous websites but it excludes a million others including the major social networking platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and others. This has led people to make the Virtual Private Network (VPN’s) a new trend.
This has led Kashmir to jump from a complete communication blockade to a life being lived behind the firewalls. It has added a new dimension to the scathing criticism of the government for restricting a service being seen as a fundamental right in most of the civilised world. The trend has unwittingly converted the entire situation in a technology war between the VPN developers, mostly from the West, and the law enforcing agencies. On a daily basis, the internet managers in Kashmir block the software’s and the developers check their capacities to penetrate the market.
In this game of denial and diversion, people are suffering. Salman Majeed, currently pursuing his masters in engineering at Italy, saw his mother after more than167 days as 2G internet services were restored. “There was a lump in my throat as if million jabbing pins were on it,” Salman said after he virtually saw his parents after more than 5 months using WhatsApp. Unlike him, his mother couldn’t contain tears. “After the internet was snapped, his photos were my sole consolation.”
Suhail Ahmed is working in Qatar. At the peak of lockdown, he used to dial his father’s number 500 times a day. Unable to reach them, he flew home. After meeting his parents, his real crisis was that he could not book his tickets.
Syed Saqib, who is pursuing his under graduation course in Delhi, is unable to see his mother on the phone after the social networking was closed. He has sent his friends to install a VPN on his mother phone. But the VPN gets obsolete every 24 hours and this is a new drill for his friends to hunt for newer VPNs for her.
But the people on whose devices the snail-pace 2G is working, the choices are hugely limited. As the VPNs became a new trend, the authorities have strictly enforced a new system that makes the installation of firewalls mandatory for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The weekly review orders issued by the home department reiterate the direction that only white-listed websites must be accessible.
“In compliance of the government orders, we seek written undertakings from our customers,” Riyaz Ahmad Mir, Director CNS, one of the oldest ISPs in Srinagar, said. “We have to submit the list of our clients to the respective authorities.”
The ISPs have suffered losses during the peak of the lockdown. Since at least one ISP was permitted to keep his service operational during the lockdown, they were also feeling an uneven playfield. They were as desperate for the restoration of the services as the users were. Now when they are permitted to restore the services on case to case basis, they are extremely cautious not to run against the new rules. All of them have MAC binding disabling access to social media.
The ISPs, at their end, have agreed to block social media platform, not using proxy or VPN’s servers or access to blacklisted sites, permit LAN-based wire connection. They are held responsible for uploading of any encrypted file and they, along with their customers have to grant access if and when the law enforcing agencies require.
“Our subscribers are mostly commercial and corporate entities like hospitals, hospitality, government houses, media, and software developers,” Riyaz said. “Most of our customers especially from the corporate sector have moved outside which have dented our economy.’’
Like CNS, all others including Jio are complying with the orders. “We are complying government orders even though we are a digital-based company and at times it is against our interests,” one senior Jio executive said.
Even the state-owned ISPs have to do strictly adhere to the same conditions. Muzafar Ahmed Beigh, an Assistant General Manager in BSNL said that barely five per cent of “our websites data” is working out of which 99 per cent is for security besides some VIP’s of political parties like BJP and others.” Beigh regrets that at a time when government-owned ISPs are restricted, the private sector ISPs are operating and making good money.
Unlike privately run ISPs, the BSNL is working on firewalling. Insiders in the public sector said that these are costly investments. “What will happen to these costly programmes when the government reverses its decision tomorrow,” one official asked.
With never restrictions, the Kashmir’s common dictionary is expanding. Firewall, VPN are the two new works that Kashmir has accommodated. The first issue was to understand these new things. Explaining a firewall, an engineer said it is like the Great Firewall of China (GFW) which has a set of legislative and technical tools deployed by the Chinese government to control information online. These are expensive bits of software that control information. One ISP told this reporter that he is using almost 400 filters.
“Dissent and debate are disallowed, the culture of silence is encouraged and the fear psychosis is at play,” reporter, columnist Gowhar Geelani said. “Authorities are trying to police thoughts.”
The black-listing of most of the World Wide Web has impacted content providers. On one end they are restricted from seeking and collecting information and on the other end, some of them, are unable to reach the audience. A host of media websites across Jammu and Kashmir are still not whitelisted.
”Kashmir market bled to the tune of Rs 18000 crore and it is surging,” Nasir Hamid Wani of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry said. “At a time when China is fighting Cornonavirus, we in Kashmir are trying to find clients, to help the economy grow but the communication gap is a major hindrance.”
The trade had met Lt Governor G C Murmu and told him that the cycle of bad news going out from Kashmir needs to be broken and one idea could be restoring full internet. “If only negative news goes out, Kashmir won’t be preferred destination,” Khan said they told him.
Some of the small trading sites are still on the blacklist. Zubair Zahoor waited endlessly for the internet to restore so that his home delivery service – completely dependent on the internet, restarts. As it failed, he moved to Bangalore to work as an employee.
Some young boys and girls had used social media to promote their products. Benish Bashir Khan, Kashmiri women entrepreneur owning Craft World Kashmir was selling her crochet works and other stuff through Instagram, and Facebook has no work. “Our whole business depends on the social network,” a distressed Binish, having more than 45 thousand followers on Instagram, said. She had created a huge chain of co-workers, all women, who were making modest earnings. “They are idle as we couldn’t reach customers. We are in a state of depression as of now.”
As has been profusely reported, the ban on WhatsApp has seriously impact ‘Save Heart’ and ‘Save Brain’ initiatives by doctors as these groups were working like a “virtual hospitals”. Many doctors like Dr Owais, regretted they lost these “virtual hospitals” to the ban.
It was in this backdrop that sections within the society started reacting by using the VPNs to access things that are otherwise behind the curtain. Right now, Kashmir seemingly is the top destination for the VPN downloads on earth. School students, traders, reporters are literally hoarding VPNs because they have to frequently change them. Normally the VPN services come free for not more than 72 hours. Apart from accessing social media, the VPNs are popular because they run better on low speeds.
“I have installed more than 12VPN’s and I end up waking up at night to install a VPN that I can use during the day,” Shakir Ashraf, a journalist under-grad said. “Back at college, we share different VPN’s all day. These help us in studying by boosting speed.”
Media researcher, Rashid Maqbool, said he sees a ragging trend of people digging tunnels into the imposed digital wall to see the other side. This, he said, is a global phenomenon – wherever people are denied services which are otherwise legal, people to tend to see options to avail the same.
The government was quick to react. Amid reports that the sections of the security men deployed on ground and physically checking the cell phone of the people, mostly youth, for VPNs, the police in Srinagar have registered an open FIR under sections 13 of UAPA, 188 and 505 of the Indian Penal Code and 66-A (b) of IT Act at the Cyber Police Station.
Reports appearing in the media said that police are probing more than 1,000 social media handles and actually summoned for questioning around 10 individuals so far. The case was registered after two video clippings showing a seriously ailing Syed Ali Geelani appeared on the social media. He was talking incoherently but the clips went viral. Later, the police detained two of his aides including his cook.
So far, police have arrested two persons. One of them is Waseem Majeed Dar, a Handwara resident who was arrested (in FIR 25/20 U/s 153-153A/505 RPC) for “spreading rumours” on social media. The second is Imtiyaz Ahmad Kawa, a resident of Saida Kadal in Srinagar city, who was also arrested for rumour-mongering.
A New Theatre
The continuous process of blocking VPNs has led to another virtual war. This is between the VPN developers (mostly outside India) and the VPN blockers (authorities). The blockade has got them involved directly as they fight a battle of competence with the blocking systems in place. Authorities hunt the VPNs in use and block them; the VPN owners update and improve their software’s to penetrate the firewalls.
This virtual battle has now gone to social media as the VPN owners put on information about the upgrades, addressing their Kashmir users directly.