The security challenges posed by the online sphere today are not new, nor is India in Kashmir the only state facing questions on the use of the internet by terror groups.
It has been nearly a month since the Indian government shut down the internet in Kashmir and whatever peace is visible in the region is relative, moments of calm are uneasy as the citizens of the Valley are brought under the Indian constitution as well as under a digital and communication siege. As a policy, the government shuts down or suspends internet services as a ploy to stop the mobilisation of people. Having an internet connection means that people can coordinate and mobilise more easily using apps and social media platforms, often now with end-to-end encryption, to plan their protests. Without the internet, one needs to rely on more traditional forms of communication, including word of mouth or the use of landline phones (which in this instance were also blocked) making it easier for security agencies to “manage” reactionary violence and surveil.
India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar when recently questioned on the communication blackout said that this was the most effective way to curtail misuse and nip potential violence and stone pelting in the valley. “How do I cut off communications between the terrorists and their masters on the one hand, but keep the internet open for other people? I would be delighted to know,” he said.
The shutdown of internet services by the government can be compartmentalised under three main reasonings: the first is prohibiting ease of movement and mobilisation against the state; the second is that fake news or legitimate news travels slower with the absence of social media updates and news notifications and the third is a corollary of the first two, that there is an appearance of peace and calm in the region or in other words the quelling of public dissent.
The suspension of internet affects groups that systematically work to organise unrest and protest in Kashmir. The expectation that separatist leaders and local political leaders could use the opportunity to mobilise support against the abrogation of the article, may have led the government to keep them under house arrest, so that they are unable to contact their constituents and party workers. Local militant outfits were also affected by the suspension of internet services, as they were unable to creative narratives that suit them on social media, including the circulation of propaganda videos, creation of fake images as well connecting with their Pakistani handlers across the border.
Stanford University scholar Jan Rydzak’s research on internet shutdowns and its protest patterns shows that in situations where protests are highly structured, groups benefit from the affordance of digital technology, which offer organisation and coordination. Rydzak’s research, which covers protests across India, highlights that in the short run, the shutdown of internet services leads to a shift in offline protest, or incidents of violence. This has been the case in Kashmir where there have been reported incidents of stonepelting and sporadic protests in certain areas, in the first few weeks of the shutdown.
Research done by the authors in Kashmir also found that the shutdown of internet services as a counterterrorism policy was largely ineffective as it was not a foolproof method of preventing mobilisation or violence. The use of landlines and passing messages through word of mouth, result in people gathering and protesting irrespective of a shutdown. However the past few weeks in Kashmir have been unique in so far as the blocking of landline connections, as well as internet services has meant that the entire state has been subjected to a harsh communication blockade.
The bridge between disconnected action and connected action by a population in a conflict zone is still under study, and requires time and academic rigor to ascertain the actual impact of internet shut downs on terrorism, terrorists, protests and mobility. Currently, the attachment of the word ‘terrorism’ with an action such as an internet shutdown gives the act significant padding against both public discourse and legislative or political opposition criticism. This allows the use of shutdowns more on a basis of convenience or absolute control of information based on not entirely accurate pretexts. Moreover, it appears as a lazy form of governmental overreach instead of looking for a technological solution to what is essentially a technology problem.
While the shutdown of internet services and landline connections may have served the government’s short need to keep peace in the valley, the longer-term consequences are far more damaging. The Indian government’s move to suspend Article 370 and divide the state, turning Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh into two separate union territories was offered with a strong reasoning of economic upliftment of the people from the erstwhile embattled state. With governmental programmes such as Digital India being at the center of the future of the country’s economic vision, it sets a poor precedence that businesses such as call centers, that rely both on technology and human resource and are seen as successful creators of jobs can be ‘shut down’ entirely at the flip of a switch.
While many, both in government and analysts alike, may see internet shutdowns as a successful method to curtail ‘terrorism’, there is little available empirical evidence that terror groups in the Kashmir valley themselves face mass disruptions on an operational basis as organisations. There is no doubt that online applications that we use on a daily basis as our main mode of communications are also being used by terror groups to achieve their ulterior motives. However, the nature of the internet as a free and largely unregulated space of the global commons is also one of the world’s largest assets. Attempts to look at it as a primary national security threat and regulate it from that lens is an argument counterproductive to all the economic, societal and human possibilities that the World Wide Web offers.
The security challenges posed by the online sphere today are not new, nor is India in Kashmir the only state facing questions on the use of the internet by terror groups. The terror groups themselves have evolved along with technology, and use the same services we use to contact our loved ones in a weaponised manner. This is not a new phenomenon, even historically, everything from telegrams to messengers have been used to spread disinformation and undermine adversaries. Today, groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda as well have within their ranks technologists who are capable of hacks ranging from arming off-the-shelf drones to managing to upload 4K quality propaganda videos from what seem like entirely bombed out towns and cities in theatres such as Syria.
A recent brief released by Tech Against Terrorism highlights how open-source software (OSS) products pose a threat of manipulation by terror groups and violent extremists. It highlights the case of Gab, a website for ‘alt-right’ or far-right extremist groups ‘stole’ the source-code of another platform called Mastadon, a decentralised self-hosted social media service. This allowed Gab to build stronger resistance to being moderated or regulate, or taken down all together. Supporters of ISIS have also experimented with Mastodon’s open source offering to build their own, safer online ecosystem. This shows that similar to how social media websites and technology are used by terrorists, OSS can be a double-edged sword as well. There needs to be therefore, a larger discussion into the use of technology by terrorists and methods to combat violent extremism on the internet in a manner which is more targeted and focused, rather than running bans on services such as 4G internet and OSS all together.
The Indian government should invest into technological solutions to national security questions being raised by technological challenges. While practices such as ‘internet shutdowns’ may be seen as temporary solutions, the ongoing 30-days and counting communications lockdown of Kashmir will have far more adverse long-term economic, socio-cultural, psychological and political ramifications than the potential short-term counter-terror gains it may (and only may) achieve.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme.Read More +
Kriti M. Shah was Associate Fellow with the StrategicRead More +