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Will blocking social media apps replace Internet shutdowns in India?

The recent instance in Jammu and Kashmir, where 22 social media apps have been blocked, could be a start of a new trend: blocking specific apps instead of blocking access to the entire Internet. According to a tracker from SFLC.in, the Internet has been shut down in India on 73 occasions since 2012, with as many as 31 shutdowns in 2016, and 14 already in 2017. Kashmir has been at the receiving end of most of these blocks: 31 instances since 2012, which is almost half the instances of blocking, and thrice already this year, and 10 times in 2016.

Shutting down access to the Internet shuts off a significant lifeline of communications, news and commerce for people, and the Indian government has been rightly under criticism for doing this. At the same time, while there have been instances of specific websites (and URLs) being blocked by ISPs and telecom operators, I can’t quite recall instances where ISPs were asked to block access to specific apps. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is new.

We are, of course, not going to see a situation where current PM Narendra Modi will blacken his Twitter DP, like he did in 2012 when sites were selectively blocked by the UPA government. At that time, the government had directed ISPs to block 16 Twitter accounts, some blog posts and hundreds of web-pages featuring user-generated content on websites such as Facebook, Google+ and Youtube.

Telecom operators have little choice

From what I’ve heard, Airtel, Reliance Jio and Idea Cellular have resumed offering Internet access in Kashmir, but are blocking these 22 social media apps. Airtel and Reliance Jio didn’t respond to requests for confirmation from MediaNama, but Idea Cellular did respond, saying that

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“We are compliant to the Govt. order on blocking of specific sites. Other than the blocked sites, rest of the mobile internet services are operational as in the regular course.”

There are 3 ways in which they can enforce these blocks: blocking specific URLs (not possible with apps), blocking IP addresses, and lastly with Deep Packet Inspection (which leads to privacy concerns). Apps can change IP addresses, but telecom operators will be forced to block those as well, in order to comply with government orders. DPI should be illegal, but it isn’t, because the Indian government is possibly the worst in the world when it comes to privacy protection, except (thankfully) when it comes to allowing people to watch porn.

Quite clearly, telecom operators aren’t pushing back against this move. Their choice is one between license cancellation, and compliance with a government order, and it’s not like that they have ever had a spine when it comes to government overreach on user rights. On the other hand, the easier choice for them is between having no services operational (hence no revenue from the circle for Internet services) or blocking 22 apps. That’s an easier choice for them to make. If an Airtel, Idea and Jio make that choice, it will create a justification (and pressure) for others like Vodafone and Aircel to follow suit.

Does the government have choice?

On one hand, the government has a situation where users are sharing content (it would appear, of violence by security forces) and there is likelihood that spreading of these visuals will lead to further unrest and violence. They’ll be criticised if they shut down access to the Internet, and they might have an unmanageable situation, with lives lost, if they don’t.

To quote an attendee from our discussion on Internet Shutdowns late last year: “WhatsApp messages with unverified information which leads to mobs coming together, and usually law enforcement will say ‘what do I do in a situation where people are flooding WhatsApp with a minor incident of a collision on road between two people, which has become a communal incident? How do I deal with this information going around? People are coming out on the streets [so] we shut the Internet off.”

What also makes it tricky is that it’s impossible to trace the source of the information when the application is encrypted end-to-end, and there’s no way of stemming the flow of information on the app. While the government might want to remove end-to-end encryption, there are privacy concerns. The idea might have been largely to block WhatsApp (which has end to end encryption), and the rest of the apps in the list — apparently picked up from some random site online — appear to be collateral damage. If there had been any thought put into this, we know that the most secure communications app available (no, I’m not naming it here) would have probably been on the list.

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The easy choice is to shut down access to the Internet. The even easier choice, quite clearly, is to shut down access to a few specific websites. This way, two things happen: people move to messaging via apps that don’t have encryption, which makes it easier for the government to monitor them. Secondly, shutting down a handful of apps means that it’s no longer an “Internet shutdown”: the count will remain at 3 for Kashmir in 2017, and if implemented in other areas, could remain at 10 for the rest of the country throughout the year.

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Of course, there’s no reason why the blocking of such widely used apps and services shouldn’t be seen as an Internet shutdown; perhaps it might be treated as a partial shutdown, and be added to the count.

Written By

Founder @ MediaNama. TED Fellow. Asia21 Fellow @ Asia Society. Co-founder SaveTheInternet.in and Internet Freedom Foundation. Advisory board @ CyberBRICS

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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