India is in limbo. They’re at the start of a long and complicated censorship journey that did not previously involve such well defined lines that could not be crossed, and the people are being scrutinized or punished for doing things that aren’t yet technically illegal. The lack of communication and cohesion is causing something of a free speech nightmare, and creating a lot of internet access problems in the interim.
The Ban and The Unblocks
As of January 14, 2020, social media platforms were supposed to be officially banned in the Kashmir region of India following about six months of full internet blackout. Slowly, the government began to restore access to a highly limited number of sites, beginning with 301 and scaling up to 1,485. None of the unblocks were social media sites, which still cannot be access via the uncensored internet in Kashmir.
The Police Complaint
The Jammu & Kashmir Inspector General of Police, Vijay Kumar, filed an official complaint. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a vaguely named law that claims to be designed to “prevent the spread of rumors and misinformation” is worded laxly enough that the case can be made against social media. Since VPNs would allow internet users to circumvent these blocks, Kumar has set his targets on private browsing services.
While J&K authorities have yet to announce exactly what their course of action will be to block VPN use or prevent restrictions from being circumvented, they’ve been highly vocal in their assertion that they are adamantly against the idea of the population taking advantage of the workaround.
The Legality of VPNS
In the past, Indian courts have rejected proposals relating to censorship or restriction on free speech. A digital liberties organization based out of Indian, the Internet Freedom Foundation, called attention to the fact that no explicit ban on VPNs exists. They continue to push for a free and open internet without any forms of censorship.
Given the history of rejected proposals and the vocal opposition by free speech and internet related groups, it’s safe to assume that Jammu and Kashmir authorities are going to have a difficult time passing any official legislation that will criminalize VPN use. Despite this fact, authorities have not stopped attempting to control VPN use to some extent.
With only a small portion of the internet restored to smartphone users in Jammu and Kashmir, many users are relying on VPNs to access just about everything. Their needs extend beyond just social media, with many news outlets or popular blogs still subject to blocks of indefinite duration.
Kashmir and Jammu were formerly an autonomous region of India. In August of 2019, their autonomy was rescinded and they are now subject to the laws, rules, and regulation of mainland India. There have been reports of Indian army members checking smartphones belonging to private citizens in search of VPN apps, although it is not clear what the army is instructed or permitted to do in the event that they find such an app.
Indian VPN users should immediately start using a stealth protocol VPN like TorGuard. In the event that internet service providers or mobile phone service providers receive instruction to utilize something like deep packet inspection technology, the providers and the government will both know that the individual in question is using a VPN.
Disguising phone VPN apps as other apps is always an option in the event that phone checks become too difficult or prominent to manage. While Android will not allow you to change the name of an app by default, third party apps exist that will allow you to create shortcuts. By changing the icon and the name of your smart phone VPN app to something perfectly legal and more innocuous (i.e, making it appear to be a banking or memo app), others will be less likely to notice that you’re utilizing a smartphone VPN.