More than a week ago, a Reddit user named Alpha-Grizzly decided to make a stand against India’s third-largest telecom provider Reliance Jio, which allegedly blocked access to VPN and proxy websites for its users, threatening the Net Neutrality principle.
The Reddit thread, created by Alpha-Grizzly on January 3, soon garnered attention from fellow Reliance Jio users who were unable to access hide.me, vpnbook.com, whoer.net/webproxy, and other websites, such as torrent indexers.
Two sources mentioned in the Reddit post asked Reliance Jio for comment a few days ago but have not received an answer from the company yet, leaving the Indian telco giant’s 250 million users in a fix.
This comes as another blow to internet freedom in India after the infamous ban on porn, which still remains in place since 2015. It has to be mentioned that this allowed the ban of other, more “neutral” sites, like collegehumor.com and behance.net, fly under the radar. To reach these websites, residents of India now have to use either a proxy or a VPN to mask their true IP address and connect as if they were in another country.
One Redditor claimed that one of Reliance Jio’s competitors – Vodafone – blocks only pornhub.net, while BSNL even unblocks everything (which we could not verify at the time of writing this article).
Another Reddit commenter mentioned having experienced Reliance Jio blocking Al Jazeera, which also puts this ISP (Internet service provider) into the territory of limiting Press freedom, something India also has to work on.
Quartz confirms redditors’ claims
The first media responder was Quartz, publishing an extensive piece on January 8. It confirmed that seven proxy and VPN websites were beyond reach while there were no issues with Vodafone, Airtel, Spectranet, and ACT.
Quartz also noted that on December 17, 2018, the New Dehli-based IFF (Internet Freedom Foundation) has asked on Twitter if the user’s ISP’s block access to any VPN websites after seeing some complaints from users online.
Though IFF’s executive director Apar Gupta provided a lengthy comment for Quartz, he did not make any connection with IFF’s survey from the last year and Jio’s VPN and proxy website blockade in his quote. As both VPNs and proxies are legal in India, Reliance Jio’s ban seems to violate the principle of Network Neutrality, said Gupta.
Gadgets 360 finds Opera’s proxy still working
The second-to-respond media outlet – Gadgets 360 – confirmed that when trying to access a VPN or proxy website, the aforementioned ISP throws the message: “You are not authorized to access this web page as per the DOT compliance.”
This leaves us with many questions, one of which is “what kind of DOT compliances are we talking about here?”
Gadgets 360 also confirmed that all major proxy websites are banned, though they were able to use Opera browser’s native proxy. It remains unclear if other already-installed proxies are working, as well as whether VPNs are blocked in a similar fashion to China’s Great Firewall.
So, what now?
This makes us think about the possible reasoning behind such an act of the third-largest telecom provider in Reliance Jio. If the competitors like Vodafone or BSNL are not blocking such content (yet), what would keep the users from switching to other providers?
We guess that it’s too early to tell as the official statement from Jio would at least provide some kind of an explanation. Chances are the ban could be lifted soon, or other providers will have to put the ban as well if this is something ordered by the government, not the Reliance’s authorities.
After all, while pornography in India can still be unblocked with the help of VPNs and proxies only, there are examples of lifted bans from a few years back. In 2015, Github, Vimeo, Dailymotion, and Archive.org were banned, causing widespread criticism that eventually lead to the unblock. If proxies and VPNs will not be portrayed as a means to reach restricted content, such as porn websites, chances are we will see them back.
But IFF’s Gupta remains skeptic about this. He mentioned to Quartz that the whole censorship happens behind closed doors and we may never know why and for how long access to these websites remains banned.
What is more, there have already been reports about the government’s plans to amend the Information Technology (IT) Act that would authorize ten agencies to intercept, monitor, or decrypt digital communications. While WhatsApp, a messaging service that uses end-to-end encryption, is said to be the main target of this legislative update, VPNs and proxies might also go down as they also work the same way. WhatsApp has 200 million users in India – about the same number as Reliance Jio.
Declining internet freedom in India
What makes us particularly sad is that such indefinite blocking is actually possible – with the precedent of the porn ban (which did not make pornography illegal per se) that hasn’t been lifted since 2015. That is because India is a country where Internet freedom has been facing increasing challenges.
The country itself is deemed as democratic and free, scoring 77 out of 100 possible points in Freedom House’s report. However, according to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report, India was only a partially free country, scoring 43/100 penalty points, getting checkmarks at blocking social media, political content, and arresting bloggers.
India’s internet freedom score is worse than those from many countries that are government-wise partly free or not free, such as Angola, Armenia, Colombia, Ecuador, Georgia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Singapore, Uganda, and Zambia.
The saddest part is that while India’s democracy level has kept at bay during the recent years, the same cannot be said about internet freedom, not to mention any chances for improvement.
India’s internet freedom situation is the second-worst in the last nine years, declining since 2015. We must note that the 2018 report does not include the porn ban or this Reliance Jio’s latest news to its subscribers. This might lead to an even worse score in the upcoming 2019’s report.
It’s too early to draw any if you ask us. We have to wait for at least some Jio news, either from the company itself or from the government. Right now, it seems this can easily swing both ways: either the proxy and VPN site ban will be lifted, or Reliance Jio will continue stomping on Net Neutrality.
In the meantime, what we can do as a VPN and proxy review website is to recommend services that might still be available for Reliance Jio users and could help you maneuver around this and possible future bans.
Our recommendations for Reliance Jio users: