Yesterday, the government of Jammu and Kashmir ordered the blocking of access to 22 social-media websites in the troubled Kashmir Valley. This is not the first time that Jammu & Kashmir has faced an Internet ban. According to internetshutdowns.in, there have been 31 such bans in the state since 2012.
As reported earlier, with 31 separate bans in 2016 alone, India leads the world's nations in the number of times it has banned the Internet in different parts of the country.
Like the ones preceding it, the latest ban was ordered under the ancient Telegraph Act of 1865. The 22 blocked websites include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (Upload), Google+, Snapchat, Viber, and Skype. The government order said that certain elements were transmitting objectionable content with the aim of spreading "disaffection" among the public at large, in a clear reference to the ongoing student unrest in the Kashmir Valley.
"The stone pelters have used WhatsApp groups to organize, but blocking social media services is not really an option," Tariq Bhat, founder of the mobile-based Asia New Network situated in Kashmir, told HuffPost India. "There are many others who are dependent on the positive communication."
Bhat added that those who want to, specially the disruptive elements, always find a way around banned services to communicate with each other. He said that the government should have better monitoring mechanisms instead of putting blanket bans on Internet usage.
"This is an example of Internet manipulation by governments the world over," Mishi Choudhary, President and Technology Lawyer at SFLC.in told HuffPost India. "The first casualty of any disturbance is now the Internet. Governments, even the democratic ones living under rule of law, have decided that is okay to prevent people from communicating in the name of law and order."
Many Kashmiris are baffled by these bans as their daily businesses, which are often dependent on social media, get severely affected by them. As a Buzzfeed News report pointed out, startups such as KashmirBox which sells local handicrafts online will face difficulties in keeping their operations afloat.
"After losses due to last year's uprising, we were hoping for good business this year," Muzaffar Sadiq, owner of a handicraft shop told Firstpost. "A few days ago, we started utilising Facebook and WhatsApp for business promotion, to connect with customers in Europe and North America, but this social media ban will affect us heavily."
Many students in Kashmir say that the government there has Internet phobia. Students in the Valley were actually streaming violent incidents live using Facebook's Live feature.
Locals are not happy with the ban.
"Social media has allowed Kashmiris to humanise their struggles through photos and videos," Muhammad Faysal, founder of the blog WithKashmir.org told Buzzfeed News. "In a region torn by violence, platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are 90 percent of our social lives. That's what you're taking away when you block them."
But there is a legal way to fight the ban according to Choudhary. "The citizens of J&K are Indian citizens and can challenge the order as violative of Article 19 (1) of the constitution, the right to free speech and expression," she says.
Currently, the ban is in place for one month. It will be worth observing how the government tackles different techniques such as VPN for bypassing the ban and accessing the banned websites.
Internet shutdowns have an economic impact as well. According to a report by the Brookings Institute, the Indian economy lost a whopping ₹6,000 crore because of Internet bans last year. A petition addressed to Prime Minister Modi and other senior government functionaries was prepared by the Indian Freedom Foundation requesting the government to take alternative measures to quell unrest instead of shutting down the Internet.