US firm helps J&K build firewall to keep social media off-limits even when internet returns

There are indications that the current bar on fixed-line internet in Kashmir might be eased soon, but social media restrictions are likely to stay.

AZAAN JAVAID 3 March, 2020

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Srinagar: The Jammu & Kashmir administration has engaged US-based multinational software firm Cisco Systems to prevent fixed-line internet users from accessing social media websites, ThePrint has learnt.

The step is seen as a precursor to the removal of restrictions on fixed-line broadband connections in the Valley, but indicates that social media will continue to stay off-limits for local residents even when internet connectivity is restored.

Internet services in the Valley have been restricted since last August, when Jammu & Kashmir was stripped of its special status and divided into two union territories.

In January, the restrictions were partially eased, with users allowed 2G mobile internet and broadband for 1,500 entities, including those providing essential services such as hospitals. 

However, users are only allowed to access 1,600 websites. Social media remains prohibited owing to law and order concerns, but local residents have intermittently accessed these websites through virtual private networks (VPNs).

The punishingly slow speeds of 2G inhibit the use of VPNs, but there are fears that their use may widen once fixed-line internet is restored. 

According to official sources, Cisco Systems will help the administration build a firewall that will prevent internet users in Kashmir from accessing blacklisted websites, including social media portals, through fixed-line connections.

Employees from the firm’s India branches, the sources said, are currently in Kashmir to build a stopgap arrangement. Local authorities, the officials added, will soon be purchasing firewall technologies from the firm to keep the social media bar in place.

“We are currently testing the temporary stopgap arrangement… and (analysing) if the ban on blacklisted websites is sustainable. This will be followed by purchasing the firewall,” a senior government official said.


Also Read: Internet not fully restored, but J&K Police to connect with people on social media


Internet users left at sea

In light of the social media bar, Kashmir Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar made an appeal to local residents last month that they should not use VPNs. 

According to a senior police officer, internet service providers were subsequently directed to block VPNs, but, in absence of stronger firewalls, people were able to access updated VPNs or those that had not been blocked.

Internet users in the Valley say the to and fro continued until last week, when they noticed 2G speeds slowing further and rendering VPNs inaccessible. 

Khursheed Ahmed, who plans to study abroad, had been using a VPN to access websites of foreign universities. “I would use social media, too, but most of the time I would use the internet to surf the websites of foreign universities. Now, not only can I not use VPNs to do that, the 2G speed has come down so much that I can’t even access my emails on the phone. I had applied in some places and I can’t check the responses,” said Ahmed.

Faheem Bhat, who owned a small software solutions firm, now finds himself forced into a career change. He is now working towards opening a medical shop. “At least that will give me some stability,” Bhat said.

“The current internet speed is as good as having no internet at all,” said Yasmeen, another Srinagar resident.


Also Read: How Kashmir internet shutdown has hit Valley industries hard

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