The decision to partially restore postpaid internet access in Jammu and Kashmir is a step in the right direction. Access Now as part of the #KeepItOn coalition welcomes this step and further urges the authorities to restore full access to high-speed, prepaid internet access.
On March 4, 2020, authorities provided some respite to people in Jammu and Kashmir. The present order allows for access to 2G speed, postpaid services. It was issued during a periodic review of the orders for internet shutdowns in the region, following the Supreme Court of India’s ruling in January that had called for the government to follow a legal framework and constitutional standards when imposing a shutdown.
In restoring access, the order appears to suspend the whitelisting and broad censorship of the internet that has been underway for months. That means that people can access all of the websites that are available to the rest of India, including social media platforms, albeit at 2G speeds. High speed 4G networks remain restricted.
Since August of 2019, those in Jammu and Kashmir have endured what is among the longest internet shutdowns ever seen in a democracy. Cuts to internet access were accompanied by a complete shutdown of digital communications channels, as well as restrictions on the movement of individuals. The shutdown was first introduced as part of “precautionary measures” the government undertook after violence erupted in Kashmir following the amendments by the Parliament of India to the Constitution of India, including the revocation of Article 370, a constitutional provision granting the region special status, and the re-constitution of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
The government’s order to restore postpaid internet access on March 5th took place exactly seven months after the government imposed a blackout on August 5, 2019.
The #KeepItOn coalition has previously issued a joint open letter demanding for the lifting of all restrictions on internet access to full capacity in the region; commitment to refrain from restricting internet access in the future; a public declaration of the government’s commitment to protect the digital rights of all people in India; comprehensive review of “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017”; and publication of the orders to shut down the internet and an explanation of the legal rationale behind the orders.
The internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir faced legal challenge and scrutiny in the Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India case before the Supreme Court of India. While the judgement of the court did not provide instant relief to the people of the valley, it provided that (i) the right to internet access came under the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation. Therefore, any restriction to these rights must be reasonable, and should satisfy the test for necessity and proportionality; (ii) the government must publish all orders for suspension of the internet and that such order should state the reason and grounds for the suspension of services; (iii) orders for suspension of services cannot be indefinite, and the court ordered the government to review the orders of existing shutdowns on merit, and conduct a periodic review of such orders.
Notably, the order to restore partial access in Jammu and Kashmir mentions the test of proportionality and the existence of alternative means as a reason for the amended considerations regarding the internet shutdowns in the valley.
There are reports that the government has engaged the services of the U.S.-based multinational software firm Cisco Systems to build a “firewall” and put in place systems to prevent people with fixed-line internet from accessing social media websites after the shutdown ban is lifted completely. However, Cisco has denied this.
Access Now has also received reports from members of our community that security agents in Kashmir have harassed or arrested people for attempting to bypass the shutdown through Virtual Private Networks(VPNs). We call on the government to ensure that security agents refrain from harassing people who rely on VPNs to access important information online.
Once again, we urge the government to restore full access to high-speed internet with immediate effect, to enable the people of Kashmir to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression and access to information. Internet shutdowns do not keep people safe. They worsen unsafe situations in a country and are a violation of the fundamental rights of people.