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Social media ban: Kashmir using VPNs to stay connected

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Wahid Bhat | Srinagar

The social media ban in Jammu and Kashmir, though stringent, has failed to create much roadblocks. As it turns out, people have found an easy way out, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). 

They are facebooking, whatsapping and tweeting almost as actively as before by accessing the banned sites and apps through free VPNs.

As the name suggests, VPNs use proxy servers and allow users to change their location to circumvent such bans. This, and the fact that there are free VPNs easily available in the valley, has turned out to be a boon for social media users. Some of the providers include VPN Master, Turbo VPN and Super VPN Proxy.

Even though the government resumed the slow-speed 2G internet connectivity for 301 “whitelisted” websites last week, the list doesn’t include social media platforms. But many people in the conflict-torn valley have resorted to using VPN apps to access these sites.

VPN allows a user to stay untracked from its location by use of the proxy server either by changing the IP address or by DNS tunneling. Usually used for data protection and to keep a check on snooping by companies, VPN has been widely used across the world to access restricted websites—especially Asian countries. 

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“The use of VPNs has helped in accessing most of the banned sites …these applications and sites have become the communication lifeline not only in Kashmir but across the world,” Umar Bhat, a businessman, said.

Bhat, however, loathed the slow internet speed in Kashmir which has made online business transactions almost impossible.

“I frequently travel between Srinagar and Delhi and the difference in the internet speed is huge. This has severely affected my business as I find it difficult to make online transactions,” he said.

In India, VPN downloads saw a staggering rise of 405 percent after the government imposed a porn ban. In the times of government-sponsored internet ban, Kashmir, too, is navigating the ‘blacklisted’ digital space with the help of this tool.

This is not the first time Kashmir’s internet ban has had the people resort to VPN. In 2017, the Jammu & Kashmir’s home department banned social media applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter to curb street protests. VPN came to the rescue back then too. “Back in 2016, when militant commander Burhan Wani was killed and the government shut down the internet, people started using VPNs in order to bypass the censorship. 

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Since authorities keep on blocking VPNs as well, many Kashmiris are downloading dozens of VPN apps on their gadgets in a bid to enhance and prolong their chance of using social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

For nearly six months, the Indian government deprived more than seven million people of Jammu and Kashmir of the internet – the longest internet shutdown in the world. The blockade began on the night of August 4. The next day, the Indian government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and split the state into two Union Territories.

On January 24, the shutdown partially eased up: the government allowed access to 301 websites related to banking, commerce, education, entertainment, travel and news. No social media sites featured on this list.

Broadband internet was restored to essential services like hospitals and government offices. But other users have to make do with second generation or 2G internet. 

Although the ban initially limited the common man’s access to these applications, the discovery of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) by the people has made the ban redundant.

2G internet access to remain operative till Feb 7

The administration stated that its January 24 order regarding the allowance of mobile data services and internet access through fixed-line shall continue to remain operative till February 7.

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The overall security scenario in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir since the issuance of the directions related to the regulation of telecom services on January 24, 2020, has been reviewed. 

Among other things, the terrorist activities and misuse of internet, accessed through VPN applications, for coordination of terror acts, transmission of rumours and targeted messages to spread ideologies inimical to the interest of the state have been taken note of as also the past incidents and apprehensions during the succeeding week,” Shaleen Kabra, Principal Secretary to the government, said.