In the Indian state of Manipur, the internet has been shut down in its entirety since May 3rd. And while the state’s High Court is now keen to get it back up and running, the local authorities say this isn’t possible while citizens can use VPNs to bypass their censorship and access blocked content.
It will come as no surprise to readers that Indian internet users are keen VPN subscribers because of the national and local government’s habit of blocking online content that doesn’t match their own political or moral standards.
But when internet shutdowns are implemented, VPNs are less helpful because no one can access the internet in any capacity.
What’s going on in Manipur State
This has been the case in Manipur since early May when clashes broke out in the region between the dominant Meitei people and the Scheduled Tribe Kuki-Zomi people.
In the wake of these clashes, the Manipur Government shut down broadband internet, and the State’s High Court is now pushing to have it restored, having received numerous public interest litigation (PILs) petitions demanding its restoration.
The Manipur Government has been far from cooperative so far. They have been clear that it is perfectly possible to restore internet access, which I don’t think was ever in doubt. But they have been clear that they do not plan to restore access to social media sites, despite the likes of Facebook having huge numbers of users in the region.
They are also well aware that once the internet is restored, people will be able to use VPNs to get around their censorship. Needless to say, this is not something they are keen on.
What are the possible solutions?
As a result of State government intransigence, the Court is currently trying to find a settlement that all parties can agree on.
One option suggested by the ISPs who have bought the petitions to court is to whitelist certain devices and broadband connections and secure these devices so that limited access can be provided to the public at designated spots.
Whilst still far from ideal, this would still enable some limited internet access in a state that has now been dark for almost two months.
However, while the State Government might consent to this, a recent directive has suggested that they believe that the only way to ensure that VPNs are not being used is to monitor everything people are doing online.
This is obviously deeply unpopular with many people and, as VPNCompare readers will know, the right to private internet access is a right that all people everywhere should be able to enjoy.
VPN block a possible solution
Unfortunately, a possible suggestion proposed by the Court to this sticking point is that VPN servers should be blocked, and then full internet access can be restored.
In many ways, this option is an even worse suggestion since it would theoretically limit people’s access to VPNs, which, as well as allowing uncensored access to the internet, also offer valuable online security and privacy protections.
But, on the other hand, as we know from so many other examples around the world, a policy of trying to block access to VPN servers is doomed to failure since it is relatively easy for premium VPN providers to get around such blocks.
The Court has requested a list of known VPN servers be submitted by the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the State Informatics Centre (SIC) before their next hearing.
They have also demanded that those mobile broadband operators in Manipur State submit reports on the feasibility of blocking these servers as well as summoning a variety of tech experts and service providers to give evidence.
The next hearing has been set for June 27th, and it remains to be seen what outcomes the Court reaches and whether Manipur State will then join such luminaries as Iran and the People’s Republic of China in trying to block access to VPNs for its citizens.
Why a VPN block won’t work in Manipur State or anywhere
In some ways, it is shocking that such steps are even under consideration in a notionally free and open democratic state like India. But, on the other hand, to those who have followed India’s recent direction of travel on issues around freedom of speech, this will come as no surprise.
If the Manipur State Court does decide to go down the route of trying to block VPNs, it will be a ruling with mixed blessings. For some in Manipur, restricted internet access will be better than the total shutdown they are currently having to contend with.
Others will lose access to free information and have no option but to comply with the censorship of the State Government. But the smart ones will find a VPN provider that can offer full access to the internet despite the efforts of the Manipur State Government to block them.
And then, they will be able to read the truth about this case and about everything else that is going on in India and the wider world.