SRINAGAR: Exactly seven months after the government imposed a complete communication blackout as part of its security lockdown ahead of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and the bifurcation of the state of J&K, the authorities on Wednesday partially lifted the ban on the use of social media by people in what is now the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
However, curbs on high-speed 3G and 4G Internet services have been extended till March 17.
As regards service to pre-paid SIMs card, service providers have been asked to provide access only after SIMs are “verified as per norms applicable to post-paid connections.”
The 2G, synonymous with slow Internet, was earlier restricted to 1,674 white-listed websites approved by the government. Through a series of orders issued by the home department from time to time, service providers were not allowed access to any social media applications allowing peer-to-peer communication and Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications.
There is no such mention in the latest order issued by principal secretary, home department, Shaleen Kabra, in winter capital Jammu on Wednesday.
The order, however, says that “in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State (read Union Territory) and for maintaining public order” the Internet speed will continue to be restricted to 2G only. “While the post-paid SIM card holders shall continue to be provided access to the Internet, these services shall not be made available on pre-paid SIM cards unless verified as per the norms applicable for post-paid connections,” the order adds.
It further says that Internet connectivity shall continue to be made available with Mac-binding on fixed line connections.
Mr Kabra said that the access and communication facilities provided by the government through e-terminals and Internet kiosks apart from special arrangements for tourists, students and traders will also continue.
He asserted that the fresh order has been issued upon regular assessment of impact of the directions for regulation of the telecom services on the overall security situation and maintenance of “public order and-taking note of the position brought out in the reports of the law enforcement agencies, while keeping in view the aspects of reasonability of restrictions with regard to the principle of proportionality and consideration of available alternatives.”
The Jammu and Kashmir police had a couple of weeks ago launched a tough campaign against those using VPNs to access social media platforms “to spread rumours, glorify terrorists and their activities and try to create law and order problems” in the Union Territory and beyond.
In fact, the police detained several people for questioning after they allegedly “misused” social media. The police sources had said that more than one thousand social media profiles were under scanner for “spreading false information and propagating violence.”
The Cyber Cell of the J&K police had last month registered an open First Information Report (FIR) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against “propagation of false information”.
Director general of police Dilbag Singh had issued a stern warning against those people using VPNs to access social media platforms “to spread rumours and try to create law and order problems.”
“People who are disseminating fake and false news and anti-India propaganda aimed at disturbing law and order and promoting terrorism will be taken to task soon,” he had said.
In its January 14 order, the J&K home department had imposed ban on all except (later raised to over 1,600) “white-listed websites” vetted by it after it restored the 2G internet services across the UT. But the diktat almost failed as a vast majority of the subscribers and other users were accessing also those websites which did not figure in the Home Department’s ‘white-list’, mainly social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, through VPNs.
The authorities had separately asked the telecom companies and other service providers to buy and install required equipment immediately to block the access by their subscribers to all those sites which do not figure in the Home Department’s ‘whitelist’. The service providers had said that the process of installing firewalls is underway.
The government had enforced a complete communication blackout across J&K as part a slew of stringent measures initiated ahead of its stripping the state of its special status and splitting it up into two UTs on August 5 last year. The ban on the use of phone and internet services was lifted gradually, however.
In January this year, the government allowed mobile data services and internet access through fixed lines across the UT. Also the 2G mobile services were restored in the remaining eight districts of the Valley. This service was made available in the Valley’s two districts-Kupwara and Bandipore- and also throughout the Jammu region of the UT earlier. However, as per an order issued by the UT’s Home Department, the internet speed was restricted to 2G and limited only to the white-listed sites. The order said, “Access will be limited only to white listed sites and not to any social media applications allowing peer to peer communication and Virtual Private Network applications”.
However, more and more people quickly switched to VPNs which not only allowed them to bypass censorship but also keep all online activities confidential and this in turn made a mockery of the official ban. A similar situation had surfaced in April 2017 when the government had imposed a blanket ban on 22 social media sites including Facebook, Twitter.com and WhatsApp in the Valley for a period of one month. Subsequently, the ban on these sites was lifted.