Srinagar: The central government restored 2G mobile internet services on postpaid as well as prepaid phones in Jammu and Kashmir last week, but people are only allowed to access 300 websites that have been whitelisted by the civil administration.
Social media websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, remain blacklisted.
But that hasn’t stopped Kashmiris from accessing these sites as they have found a way to bypass the blockade — through VPN.
Virtual Private Network enables internet users to stay untracked by use of the proxy server, which allows them to change their location.
Kashmiris are now widely using VPNs to access social media sites, prompting the J&K administration to work on a plan to prevent them from using such networks.
“Internet users in the Valley have gone a step further and seem not to be afraid to flaunt their newly acquired ability (VPNs) to access social media,” a senior J&K administration official told ThePrint.
Security agencies considering to block VPNs
J&K Police are now trying to find ways to prevent people from using VPNs, a second J&K administration official told ThePrint.
The official, however, also added that after 2G services were restored in J&K, they have been monitoring social media and there hasn’t been any instance of individuals uploading controversial posts, which could threaten law and order.
The J&K administration has described this use of restricted websites as “data leakage” and sources said J&K Police have asked the internet service providers to explain this “data leakage”.
A police source told ThePrint that J&K Police wants to know if internet service providers have the technology to bar subscribers from using VPNs.
Security agencies are also considering a block on VPN applications.
“As of now, the use of VPNs is not wide-scale but the technology is travelling. So, we are considering to block downloading of VPN-generating applications, but there is no technology to ban VPNs altogether. But we will try minimise the use of the technology,” said a central government official.
Domain experts in the security establishment, however, said the move to block VPN apps might not be enough as there are hundreds of other similar applications that will help people access restricted sites using proxy servers.
“This is where the internet users might have an advantage. This is a blind-spot that we are working to fill,” the official said.
Some using VPNs since 2017, some only now
ThePrint spoke to over a dozen internet users in Srinagar, who have been using VPNs since the restoration of the 2G services.
While some of them said they have been using VPN apps since 2017 when social media was blocked in Kashmir following massive student protests, others said they downloaded them only now or the apps were provided to them by friends or acquaintances.
Khalid Ahmed, a university student in Srinagar, said he spent the whole of last week downloading a dozen VPN apps. He said he now has 45 VPN apps — some of them were downloaded before.
“It was extremely painful as downloading isn’t easy on 2G speed, but I downloaded small-size applications. Some of them work, most don’t,” Ahmed said.
“I just want to be prepared because I hear 4G services won’t be resumed anytime soon and nor will broadband services,” he added.
The central government official quoted above said currently the J&K civil administration is working on a plan to resume broadband internet services but with firewalls to block websites.
The official said a plan to compile blacklisted websites is underway, but the task is not easy.
“The idea is to start broadband services but for that a string of firewalls has to be created first to prevent individuals from accessing social media and other websites, which pose a threat to law and order,” he told ThePrint.
The official further said the websites that are a threat to law and order include those sympathising with separatists’ ideologies and even news websites of some countries that engage in creating trouble in J&K, the official added.
The issue of low internet speed
While internet users may be happy using VPNs to access social media sites, those associated with e-commerce business aren’t.
Owais Haqqani, who runs an e-commerce site, told ThePrint he can’t use VPN to access his website, which is blacklisted.
“It is not wise to use VPNs especially for business, which includes online payments,” he said.
Haqqani is now hoping that the government whitelists his site and restores good internet speed so he can resume his business.
Residents said due to slow speed, even whitelisted sites cannot be accessed.
“Even if one is able to access the whitelisted websites, the hyperlinks are difficult to open,” said Kamran Syed, a university student.