Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
It is strongly recommended that you include your outline in the body of your essay by using the outline as section titles. The headings below are there to remind you how section and subsection titles are formatted.

The Illusion of Internet in Jammu and Kashmir: Questioning the extent of “relief” stemming from the government order directing internet access

-- By NamrataMaheshwari - 13 Mar 2020

After facing the longest internet shutdown in history, a measure of relief came to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on March 4, 2020, through an order restoring internet access with certain restrictions. It is, however, important to consider the extremely limited nature of the relief and question the way the internet is being weaponized to undermine the fundamental rights of citizens in the world’s largest democracy.

The order reinstates internet access with the following restrictions: i) the speed is restricted to 2G; ii) Pre-paid sim cards will have to undergo verification; and iii) internet connectivity will be made available with Mac-binding. These restrictions are problematic for two reasons. First, they reduce the status of the order from a measure that could restore freedom and access in a region fraught with conflict to a mere palliative that creates an illusion, or at the very least an extremely contorted version, of these ideals. Second, they limit where and how citizens may express themselves or access information online and enable surveillance in violation of their fundamental rights to freedom of speech and privacy.

The 2G restriction makes it difficult for users to access social media and news platforms that are primarily designed for 4G. It therefore remains to be seen whether the ban on social media websites that has now been lifted does in fact translate into accessibility with the slower network. Additionally, while basic communication may be possible, 2G hampers the ability to view and share pictures and videos. This places a limitation on the avenues available to users in J&K to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. It is arguably aligned with the government’s attempts to manipulate exposure of ground realities in J&K by imposing communication gags and constraining journalists to dominate the surrounding narrative in mainstream media.

The elimination of internet connectivity for pre-paid sim card holders without verification has the effect of perpetuating the internet ban to some extent for the majority of users in J&K. More people access the internet through mobile devices than computers. In 2019, India had 500 million internet users out of which 80% were online via mobile devices. And the lion’s share of the total telecom subscribers comprises of pre-paid sim card holders. More than 90% of mobile users in India, as of 2019, were pre-paid subscribers. Although country wide, these statistics are presumably indicative of mobile use patterns in individual states and union territories including J&K. Thus, even though the order, in theory, reinstates internet services for mobile phones, the scope of its reach, in practice, remains a matter of concern. A large part of J&K’s population will likely continue to face procedural hardships in the quest of gaining access to the virtual platforms that enable greater participation in a democracy.

The third restriction could potentially amplify the government’s ability to surveil online activities. Media Access Control (Mac) address is a hardware identification number that is unique to each device. When this device is connected to the internet, it is assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address. Mac-binding is the process of pairing the IP and MAC addresses such that only computers with the specified MAC address can access the internet with the associated IP address. If either of these addresses changes, the computer would no longer be able to navigate the internet. Most importantly, Mac-binding makes it possible for authorities to monitor online activities and trace them back to the specific systems. This exacerbates the threat of surveillance that J&K residents have been facing for the past several months. To permit access to the internet only through methods that can be constantly surveilled by authorities could violate the right to privacy. It has a chilling effect on free speech because there cannot be any meaningful exercise of the right to freedom of expression with the threat of surveillance and violence looming large.

Each of these restrictions may have more than one explanation but the possibility of the ones set out here being the underlying motivation cannot be ignored considering the government’s treatment of J&K since it was stripped of its autonomy. In any case, these restrictions fundamentally alter the role of internet in a democracy.

The digital age is unprecedented both in the magnitude of enabling it can facilitate and in the extent to which it can jeopardize human rights and democratic procedures in the absence of appropriate regulation. The internet could be an empowering platform where more citizens may exercise their fundamental rights than ever before and gain visibility in the process of democratic governance. However, through measures akin to those discussed here, it could also be transformed into a tool for the government to undermine rights and render violent realities invisible by manipulating their existence in the virtual space. This virtual sphere is no longer an adjunct to the social and political lives of citizens, and it would be a mistake not to recognize the defining role it plays in a democracy. Depending entirely on how policy measures governing the internet are implemented, it bears the potential of changing democracy as we know it to a regime that is phenomenally more inclusive or one that is unprecedented in the kind of autocratic governance it makes possible.

While the order provides some reprieve to J&K, it should not be construed to end the internet shutdown. To do so would be to redefine what it means to have “internet access” in a manner that normalizes connectivity that is accompanied by procedural hurdles and threats to civil rights and liberties. Particularly in a democracy, there ought to be safeguards against internet regulation that aggravates the power imbalance between the state and its citizens. Especially for historically disadvantaged communities, digital suppression acts as a weapon that perpetuates marginalization. For these reasons, the absence of unimpeded access to all parts of the internet for each and every person in J&K, devoid of the restrictions set out in the order is, in a sense, reflective of the absence of democracy itself.


Webs Webs

r1 - 13 Mar 2020 - 20:33:49 - NamrataMaheshwari
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM