On August 5, the Indian government cut all phone lines and internet connections in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir without warning. WhatsApp threads went quiet overnight and bills went unpaid. Kashmiri politicians like Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, were detained alongside countless activists and teachers. The roads were sealed off and patrolled by tens of thousands of armed soldiers.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” says Khurram Parvez, an activist with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a federation of human rights organizations in the region. “It was quite hard for the first 15 days because there was no communication and people weren’t able to move because there was curfew.” Even after he could return to his office, Parvez was unable to reach people in his organization or connect with volunteers.
It wasn’t just work that was compromised. For the first month, even paying a television bill was impossible, Parvez says, because most people only knew how to make those payments online. “This was a very small, little thing,” he says. “But people were just completely disconnected. We lived in a world other than the world where everyone else lived.”
Landline phone service resumed eventually, but that was little comfort for many residents of Kashmir. “People were reluctant to speak on landlines because [they] were worried that everything was getting recorded,” Parvez says. By October, cell service was partially restored, albeit not for the majority of Kashmiris, who used prepaid phones. It was only in January—after more than 150 days of an internet blackout, the longest such shutdown in a democracy—that the government took steps toward restoring internet access by unblocking a few hundred websites.
This particular shutdown was the by-product of a far-reaching decision by the government—helmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—to revoke Article 370, which had granted autonomy to the hotly contested region of Kashmir since India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947. But Kashmir is no stranger to internet shutdowns. Since 2012, the region has been the target of 180 blackouts, according to the Software Freedom Law Center. Things haven’t been much better beyond Kashmir’s borders: In that time, there have been more than 380 internet shutdowns across India. In December, as protests against a new citizenship law seen as anti-Muslim swept the country, the internet was turned off in multiple cities, including parts of the capital, New Delhi; last month, ongoing protests erupted into sectarian violence across Delhi, killing more than 40 people.
Khurram Parvez, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society
We lived in a world other than the world where everyone else lived.”
While India has long been the world’s most populous democracy, in recent years it has also become the global leader in internet shutdowns, far outpacing other countries—even authoritarian states—that turn off the internet and block access to social media with any frequency. The latest report by digital rights advocacy group Access Now found that in 2019, India shut down the internet 121 times; Venezuela came in second, with just 12 internet shutdowns. But with the Kashmir blockade, India has doubled down on a troubling trend of weaponizing internet access in response to dissent, putting it in the company of countries that don’t rank especially high on The Economist‘s democracy index. According to a report by digital privacy group Top10VPN, there were more internet and social media shutdowns reported in 2019 than in any year prior—an increase of more than 10%.
For businesses and India’s economy, this tendency toward shutdowns has been catastrophic. In 2019 alone, India’s shutdowns may have cost the country $1.3 billion, according to one estimate. Other estimates say the loss from Kashmir’s shutdown alone was in the range of $2.4 billion. A report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations posited that shutdowns had cost the country more than $3 billion from 2012 to 2017. On a global scale, internet blackouts reportedly occurred more frequently in 2019 than any other year, and the economic cost was estimated at more than $8 billion—a 235% jump from 2015.
When the internet in Kashmir was blocked, the rationale was that it was necessary to curb the spread of false information, a common refrain from governments that call for internet shutdowns. But human rights advocates say that’s a convenient scapegoat.
“Disinformation and misinformation is more of an excuse than a real reason for the popularization of shutdowns as a form of information control,” says Jan Rydzak, a research analyst at Ranking Digital Rights, a digital free speech and privacy nonprofit. “In most cases, what we see is just the desire to control the narrative, especially if it’s disruptive to the government. Governments often use argumentation that touches on disinformation as a factor, but never really present proof.”
The real objective of many state-sanctioned internet blackouts is to keep protests in check, a tactic that previously seemed to be the purview of autocratic governments. In the case of Kashmir, the shutdown was a preemptive strike—a troubling shot across the bow from an increasingly flawed democracy.
Business as usual, without the internet
The initial communications blackout in Kashmir didn’t just make it difficult for residents to organize or express dissent. Many students had to relocate to Delhi and other nearby cities so they could continue their studies, Parvez says. Even with the internet partially restored, some Kashmiris travel hours by train—aptly monikered the “Internet Express”—to towns with internet cafes so they can submit job applications. As Puja Changoiwala wrote recently in OneZero, Kashmiris employed by the tourism and hospitality industries have been hit especially hard by the shutdown, as have small business owners reliant on the internet. Some media outlets, like the Kashmir Press, had no choice but to shutter operations, while news outfits like The Kashmir Walla have eked out print stories by sending journalists to Delhi and making use of a “Media Facilitation Center” that was eventually set up by the government to provide internet access to reporters.
Fahad Shah, 'The Kashmir Walla'
It was the most traumatic, blind period for journalism in Kashmir.”
“It was the most traumatic, blind period for journalism in Kashmir, and as an independent media startup, it brought us [to] our knees,” says Fahad Shah, the founder and editor of The Kashmir Walla. Shah tells me The Kashmir Walla had found an investor and was financially stable back in August. When the blackout took hold, its ad revenue was gutted overnight.
“We did want to continue our survival somehow because otherwise people will lose faith [in] media, so we reported as much as we could,” Shah says. “But all this time, The Kashmir Walla couldn’t be updated online. Our website was defunct.”
Shah’s determination to continue publishing echoes how Kashmiris have tried to continue on despite the shutdown. “It has been too much, but somehow the people of Kashmir, for the last many years, have become very accommodating,” Parvez says. “We adjust a lot to the circumstances because it’s not the first time that this has happened. This has been happening repeatedly.”
Jan Rydzak, Ranking Digital Rights
It’s really the normalization of this kind of restriction that is probably the most dangerous aspect of it.”
That’s what makes recurring internet shutdowns especially insidious, Rydzak says. In regions like Kashmir, people are more likely to accept a communications blockade as their new normal. “It’s really the normalization of this kind of restriction that is probably the most dangerous aspect of it,” he says. “In the case of Kashmir, for example, the fact that these shutdowns have been so frequent, even if they’re ephemeral, is very important.”
The normalization of shutdowns can lull you into accepting conditions that you would ordinarily find unacceptable. As detailed recently by BuzzFeed News reporter Pranav Dixit, some tech leaders have signed agreements with the police that would grant them restricted internet access so long as they don’t use social media or send encrypted files. Many journalists have had no choice but to use the Media Facilitation Center, where a handful of computers are hooked up to ethernet cables.
Circumventing an internet shutdown, Kashmiri style
Frequent shutdowns might better prepare you to work around them, particularly if the objective is only to block social media platforms. But in the event of a total communications blackout, those affected may have little recourse. “When people talk about internet shutdowns, there’s a scale ranging from blocking access to a given application, all the way to full scale,” says David Belson, the senior director of internet research and analysis at the Internet Society. “If it’s full scale—no traffic in, no traffic out—those are harder to circumvent, and you’re probably going to wind up sharing stuff locally. If it’s simply that they’re filtering to block access to WhatsApp or Facebook, users can make use of virtual private networks (VPNs).”
Depending on the circumstances, mesh networks—which connect devices locally without internet, through peer-to-peer networks—can be effective. Educators in Venezuela, for example, have turned to New York-based startup GoTenna, whose products allow users to communicate off the grid. According to cofounder and CEO Daniela Perdomo, GoTenna’s products are also part of a contingency plan pieced together by activists in Venezuela to protect against a potential communications shutdown. (Perdomo notes that GoTenna does not sell to India directly due to regulations.)
Then there are mesh networking apps like Bridgefy, which has surged in popularity since drawing the attention of Hong Kong protestors. Over the last six months or so, Bridgefy CEO Jorge Ríos says downloads in India hit 500,000, and Bridgefy’s total downloads crossed 1.5 million. In fact, across India and Iran, Ríos learned that people were distributing the Bridgefy app on a USB. “This is going to sound like I’m making it up,” Ríos says. “But we heard from a few of our users that in Iran, they actually taped a USB to a drone and were sharing the app throughout a very large village.”
Jorge Ríos, Bridgefy
They actually taped a USB to a drone and were sharing the app throughout a very large village.”
But a shutdown as comprehensive as the one in Kashmir presents complications. “Mesh networks are effective and useful but primarily in a small scale,” Rydzak says. “When we’re talking about an entire region that’s cut off, that gets more complicated and logistically difficult.” Even now, with partial internet services restored, social media remains off limits and most websites are still blocked—and mobile data access is limited to 2G connections.
That’s why most people in the region have resorted to using VPNs, which they often distribute through SHAREit, a file-sharing app that doesn’t require a Wi-Fi connection. NordVPN, for example, has 12 million users worldwide—the company calls itself the largest paid VPN service—and claims it saw a spike in its own website visits across the Kashmir region both before the internet ban took effect and again in January.
“The only way I’m able to speak to you or access Facebook or Twitter is by using VPNs,” Parvez tells me. “Most people are using VPNs. It’s only very tech savvy people who are trying to find some other alternatives as well.”
The people most affected by the shutdown are, as Dixit reported, those with little influence and fewer financial resources. Unlike Parvez, the majority of Kashmiris can’t afford to pay for a private VPN subscription, which means they are forced to rely on free services that are less secure and more likely to be blocked. (Many free VPNs make their money by selling consumer data.) The internet connection is also far slower. “You’ll find every person will have 10 to 15 or 20 VPNs on their phone,” Parvez says. “It’s frustrating because in a day you will have to connect and reconnect 100 times to be able to get access.”
“Dissent is the guarantee for a democracy”
Human rights organizations are fairly unequivocal that internet shutdowns should be perceived as human rights violations. After all, the phenomenon of internet blackouts originated from a decidedly undemocratic playbook. As Changoiwala wrote, some of the pioneering internet blockades were a response to the anti-government protests that characterized the Arab Spring.
In 2016, the United Nations made an addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to . . . seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” India was among the countries that opposed the new language, along with the likes of Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia.
Jan Rydzak, Ranking Digital Rights
These are radiating effects, and the sum of those effects is what constitutes the erosion of democracy.”
A shutdown also has devastating ripple effects. “Every time that we see a shutdown, it’s impossible to ignore or fail to mention the effects on the economy, on people’s health, on education,” Rydzak says. “These are radiating effects, and the sum of those effects is what constitutes the erosion of democracy.”
India remains one of the only countries that has actively legislated when shutdowns can take place, Rydzak says. In 2017, India passed a new law that would allow the country to temporarily suspend telecom services when faced with “public emergency or public safety.” There’s little transparency into what that actually means, though thanks to this law local officials are empowered to issue orders to telecom companies. Prior to the 2017 law, India had justified internet shutdowns with a telegraph law, a remnant of the British Raj; many other countries similarly use an outdated legal framework that hasn’t been updated for the internet age.
In his research, Rydzak has also emphasized that if the point of shutdowns is to mollify protests, many of them have failed to achieve that. In fact, when internet access is compromised, protests are actually more likely to turn violent. “If the primary excuse is to curb disinformation and stop protest—especially violent protest—there’s a way to determine whether that’s effective,” he says. “My own research has shown that in the case of India, at least if we look at 2016, shutdowns are typically followed by an increase in violent protest. And the purpose of a shutdown, in theory, is to reduce chaos, not exacerbate it.”
Jan Rydzak, Ranking Digital Rights
Instead of information control, you actually get information chaos.”
Communications blackouts don’t just impact their intended targets—the government, too, has less information than it ordinarily would. “Instead of information control, you actually get information chaos,” Rydzak says. “A lot of research has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that tools like social media are normally used for organized, peaceful protest.”
And blocking access to social media apps doesn’t necessarily preclude the spread of misinformation. Shah says his team has reported extensively on how false information has snaked its way through Kashmir by sheer word of mouth. “A communication blackout doesn’t help to curb misinformation,” he says. “It spreads it. Rumors are everywhere when there is no medium to confirm anything.”
In January, India’s Supreme Court called for the state to review the ongoing internet shutdown, arguing that freedom of speech and expression was an “integral part” of Article 19 in India’s constitution and an “indefinite” crackdown would be considered illegal. But in February, local authorities in Kashmir filed a case against hundreds of VPN users in the region, accusing them of “misuse of social media” and “disseminating fake and false secessionist, anti-India propaganda.” At military checkpoints, Parvez says, men and women have been asked to show their phones so officials can check if they have VPNs.
To Parvez, the message is clear: The target is, and always has been, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
“How can you have a vibrant democracy if you do not allow dissent?” he says. “Elections are no guarantee that the country is a democracy. Dissent is the guarantee for a democracy. If this dissent is not allowed in Kashmir, what is India claiming to be?”
This story is part of our Hacking Democracy series, which examines the ways in which technology is eroding our elections and democratic institutions—and what’s been done to fix them. Read more here.