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How Indian Internet Users are Circumventing Internet Shutdowns

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Saadia Azim
Guest Author | Policy Expert, India
Categories:
Shutdown
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October 17, 2023

People living and working in regions prone to prolonged Internet shutdowns in India, such as Jammu Kashmir, and Manipur, have devised various ways to access the Internet. Below is a sample of these methods to help others who are dealing with government-enforced Internet shutdowns. Note some of these require pre-planning and setting up before a shutdown while others can be done at any time.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) allow users to bypass local Internet restrictions by connecting to servers in other countries. If the Internet shutdown isn’t total (service blocking) or if some networks remain accessible, VPNs can be a way to access the broader Internet.

Tor (The Onion Router) is free software that helps Internet users communicate anonymously via the Tor network. Since it can bypass Internet censorship, it is beneficial when the regular Internet is being surveilled or restricted.

Mesh networks are made up of computers and mobile phones linked directly to each other instead of via a centralized Internet service provider (ISP). Apps such as Bridgefy or FireChat allow people to create local mesh networks using Bluetooth to send messages without the Internet. This form of networking has become common in Manipur.

Satellite Internet is not popular in India (yet) but it has been used by some in Kashmir for several years to overcome Internet outages and shutdowns. While governments can enforce local ISPs to restrict or stop connectivity, it’s much harder for them to block foreign-owned satellite ISPs, such as Starlink and OneWeb.

Some applications and platforms offer offline modes, where data is pre-loaded and updated periodically. This allows users to access content without being connected to the Internet in real time. This method is becoming increasingly popular in Manipur.

Since Internet shutdowns are specific to a country or region, using a SIM card from a foreign country can help access the Internet, assuming that mobile networks are still operational. This works best in border areas of Manipur and Kashmir where networks across the border are accessible (network spillover). 

While considered outdated, dial-up connections use phone lines to connect to the Internet. If the Internet shutdown hasn’t affected telephone lines, dial-up can be an option, albeit a slow one. In the case of Manipur, residents with broadband Internet could access the Internet two months before mobile Internet users gained access again.

Data mulling involves physically moving data from one place to another on USB drives or other storage devices. This doesn’t allow live access to the global Internet but can help distribute critical information.

In extreme situations, shortwave radios can be used to broadcast or receive messages, including digital data. It is popular in various regions of India.

Sometimes, Internet censorship or shutdowns target specific domain names or domain name system (DNS) servers. Users can bypass these restrictions by manually configuring a computer or device to use an alternative DNS server, such as Google’s 8.8.8.8, or Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1.

Use With Care

The above are just a few of the common strategies people worldwide are using to not only overcome Internet shutdowns but circumvent censorship restrictions and protect their identity and data. 

While they are all legal some actors use them for illegal purposes. For example, a video depicting extreme violence against women in Manipur that went viral in India in July 2023 was discreetly shared among a group involved in the incident. This ambiguity made it difficult for police to identify who filmed and distributed the video.

This does not mean that these strategies that seek to protect people’s privacy and ability to communicate during Internet and mobile shutdowns are nefarious but care should be taken when using them.

Keep track of Internet Shutdowns and the economic loss they incur via the Pulse Shutdown Tracker and NetLoss Calculator.

Saadia Azim is a policy expert from India. She delves deep into research on the Digital Divide and passionately champions Internet Rights. Her insights bridge the gap in understanding the digital realm. She also serves as the Vice President for Publicity at the Internet Society, Kolkata Chapter.

The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Internet Society.