Censorship in India: How to Circumvent Local Restrictions

Browser window with red crossed circle, tied Wi-Fi symbol and India circle flag
Click here to read a summary of this article!
Censorship in India: A Quick Guide

In recent years, internet censorship in India has become more prevalent. It has become common practice for the government to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or social media companies to remove content that is considered “a threat to national security.”

People have been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around censorship and get access to diverse news sources and international websites. As of June 2022, however, new legislation will require companies, including VPN services, to store user data and provide it to the government upon request.

The country generally censors different types of content, including:

  • Political criticism
  • Social media and video sharing platforms like TikTok
  • Pornographic content

The country censors the web using a variety of techniques, such as:

  • National internet shutdowns
  • Directives to ISPs
  • Orders to private businesses
  • Manipulating content online
  • Surveillance and user data collection

If you’re looking for a working and secure VPN for India, we recommend NordVPN.

Since NordVPN is a verified zero logs VPN, India’s new data retention laws won’t be much of an issue. Read our full article below to find out more.

With nearly 1.4 billion people, India has one of the biggest tech markets in the world. Mobile internet prices are cheap, which allows hundreds of millions of people to be online every day. At the same time, government-ordered restrictions on internet use are rampant and internet freedom is in decline.

Washington-based organization Freedom House categorizes India as “partly free,” with a score of 49 on the 2021 Freedom of the Net index. India is notorious for nationwide shutdowns, social media censorship, and growing surveillance.

Additionally, cybersecurity legislation that went into effect in June 2022, will force companies, including virtual private network (VPN) providers, to collect and store user data for up to five years. This has serious consequences for user privacy.

In this article, we catch you up to speed when it comes to the state of censorship in India, how it’s enforced by the government, and how to keep your data safe in light of new regulation.


Media Freedom in India: Growing Limitations

Infographic showing media freedom; growing limitations

The Indian Constitution officially grants the right to freedom of speech and the right to gather information. Theoretically, this extends to India’s vast and diverse media landscape. However, there are several restrictions on what media outlets are allowed to publish.

Additionally, online censorship has only tightened in recent years.

Freedom of the press

Indian media outlets do not enjoy extensive freedom. According to Reporters Without Borders, there’s a high concentration of media ownership. While there’s an abundance of outlets, they are owned by only a handful of companies.

Additionally, since the election of prime minister Narendra Modi in 2014, journalists have faced increasingly violent repercussions for reporting critically on the government. Between 2014 and 2019, 40 journalists were killed and at least 198 suffered severe attacks.

Religious and ethnic minorities are most vulnerable to harassment, as is exemplified by the fact that 20 female Muslim journalists have been listed as “for sale” on a fake auction app in an attempt to humiliate and degrade them.

Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has been deliberately restricted by the Indian government, according to the International Press Institute. Foreign press is also affected by censorship in India: among others, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, and the BBC have all received warnings for reporting critically on India.

Digital media

The online media landscape in India allows for diverse debate and has given a greater voice to marginalized groups in more remote areas. However, at the same time, strict internet censorship is carried out by both the central and state governments. One main method of web censorship is selective internet filtering.

Any content that “threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security, or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order” is considered objectionable. This is determined by India’s Information Technology Act (2021), which is a secondary set of laws to India’s Intermediary Guidelines Rules (2011).

This legislative package also mandates that digital news outlets and streaming platforms must adhere to a special Code of Ethics. According to this code, creators are ordered to consider whether their content affects India’s sovereignty or national sovereignty in any way.

On social media, there’s a high degree of content removal as a result of these rules.

Social media censorship

In 2014, prime minister Modi won the elections on his “Digital India” campaign. Commending the importance of social media, Modi was set to become India’s first social media prime minister.

Eight years later, the Indian administration has taken a completely different route. From mass content removals to coordinated efforts to target and troll opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the active distribution of misinformation, the Indian government authorities keep social media under tight control.

The relationship between the Indian government and big tech giants has been confrontational for a while, primarily due to disagreements about content removal. In 2020, the Indian government requested Twitter to remove nearly 10,000 posts. For comparison, the count was 248 in 2017.

Social media companies are required to warn their users not to post anything that’s defamatory, obscene, or “patently false or misleading.” Content can get flagged for being politically critical or activist in nature.

Censorship has become especially aggressive with regard to coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as widespread farmer protests against deregulation of the agricultural sector.

In 2021, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology published new guidelines for social media platforms. In the first place, the new guidelines put encrypted messages at risk, by forcing digital media companies to disclose user identities upon government or court request. Moreover, social media platforms have to give up information on how and from where certain posts are published.

This puts people’s privacy and access to information at significant risk.


The Jammu and Kashmir Region: Increased Restrictions

Increased restrictions iconThe Jammu and Kashmir region is a region that’s been subject to political disputes between India, Pakistan, and China for decades. In 2019, the previously autonomous status accorded to this region was evoked, with the Parliament of India placing Jammu and Kashmir back under Indian constitutional law.

Since then, media in the region, both online and offline, have been heavily restricted. Journalists are under threat for their reporting, facing interrogation, physical threats, restrictions on freedom of movement, and violence. A government policy paper that was released in June 2020, effectively puts media under strict control and threatens fundamental human rights.

To prevent the free flow of information, the Indian authorities frequently shut down the internet in the region. In 2021, at least 85 shutdowns were registered by Access Now.

Attempts to circumvent censorship, such as using a virtual private network (VPN), have been met with force. Jammu and Kashmir police have been reported to confiscate and check people’s smartphones for VPN software.


Why Does India Censor the Internet?

Indian authorities claim that India’s Information Technology Act is aimed at increasing cyber and internet security. If social media companies store and keep a hold of user data, cyber incidents can be dealt with quickly and effectively. Organizations are ordered to report any issues with regard to server infrastructure or data breaches.

While it’s true to a certain extent that data retention can be useful for troubleshooting purposes, the new regulation is actually a thinly-veiled attempt at keeping control over the free flow of information. For most governments, this is the prime goal of censorship—and India is no different.

Since his election, prime minister Modi has deliberately built an online ecosystem that benefits his party. In fact, it’s been reported that India wishes to follow in China’s footsteps and develop its own national intranet.

In order to limit opposition and political criticism, Indian government officials use vague parameters to determine what online content does and doesn’t pose a threat to national security.

Self-censorship

Self censorship iconAs a result of increased threats to people’s safety, many Indian internet users refrain from speaking their mind freely online. The ruling BJP has grown in influence, which makes it more difficult to express dissent. Self-censorship is certainly practiced by both individuals and Indian news outlets.

TV channels drop certain interviews. Entertainment channels decide not to air satirical content that imitates political leaders. In the Jammu and Kashmir region, the degree of self-censorship is even higher. The same goes for ethnic and religious minorities.

At the same time, in an attempt not to succumb to the pressure of forced silence, independent outlets and ordinary citizens continue to speak publicly about sensitive issues, current affairs, and politics.

For most of them, being able to access an open internet with the use of circumvention tools is key in their discussion of these kind of topics.


What Content is Being Censored?

Infographic showing what content is being censored in India

The parameters that determine whether content is considered a threat to Indian society, are vaguer and more encompassing now than they’ve been in previous years. More and more topics have come into the line of fire, though generally, they tend to fall into one of the following categories.

Political criticism

Anti-India sentiment is not very tolerated in Indian media. Political information can be blocked by court order and government order, though public records of these instances are limited.

In February 2021, it was revealed that the Indian government had ordered bans on 16,283 websites between 2018 and 2020, all on the basis of protecting the security of the state and the defense of Indian national sovereignty.

Websites belonging to certain advocacy groups or non-governmental organizations have also been banned, including FridaysForFuture and There Is No Earth B, which disseminates information about climate change. It’s pertinent to mention here that India is the third-largest emitter of CO2 in the world.

A 2018 report by Citizen Lab identified 1,158 unique URLs with content related to the Rohingya refugee crisis that were blocked. Indian government officials face a lot of criticism for their treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

Social media platforms

Social networks and internet platforms suffer extensively from censorship by Indian government agencies. Big tech companies are regularly asked to remove posts that express criticism of prime minister Modi or the way the Indian regimes executes its policies.

Two prime examples are the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response to the farming protests of late 2020 and early 2021. Healthcare systems in India have been gripped by deadly wave after deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have all been ordered to take down content critical of the government. Additionally, volunteer-run networks on apps like Telegram and WhatsApp have supposedly been ordered to shut down by the Delhi Police.

At the end of 2020, farmers in India began protesting the deregulation of the sector by the Indian government. Protesters have been detained by the police and journalists have been intimidated out of reporting on the unrest. In February, 2021, the government ordered social media giant Twitter to block about 250 accounts that “posed a grave threat to public order.”

China-based platforms TikTok and WeChat are permanently banned in India. When it launced in 2016, TikTok became an instant success in India, primarily because the app supported 15 local languages. In 2020, the app was banned over “security concerns.” At the time of writing, it’s still banned.

Pornographic content

Viewing adult content in private spaces is not illegal in India. It falls under the right to personal liberty.

However, pornographic websites are considered to violate a “morality and decency” clause in the Indian constitution that justifies restrictions on free speech. Using these grounds for justification, the Department of Telecommunications ordered several Internet Service Providers to ban a total of 857 pornographic websites in 2015. However, a few days later, this ban was lifted again.

Rather, restrictions are now aimed at the publication or transmission of pornographic material. Anyone who shares “obscene material” in electronic form can be punished with a three- to five-year jail term.

File-sharing websites, in general, face some censorship. For example, WeTransfer is blocked on the basis of protecting public interest and national security.


How Does India Censor the Internet?

Infographic showing how does India censor the Internet

There are various methods of censorship that the Indian government employs to censor the internet.

National internet shutdowns

The most drastic and effective way to restrict people’s access to certain content is by shutting down the internet altogether. India is responsible for the highest amount of national shutdowns in the world: in 2019, Indian authorities order 121 out of 213 internet shutdowns globally.

As stated before, the region of Jammu and Kashmir suffers disproportionately. They’ve experienced more internet shutdowns than any other area.

Internet service providers

Another main method of censorship is ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block certain websites.

This often involves DNS poisoning. By default, Domain Name System queries, which are used to connect you to a certain website, are sent to internet companies to be resolved. Through DNS poisoning, ISPs can return an incorrect IP address, one that doesn’t connect to the website you’re looking for.

Internet companies can do this for all websites they’ve been ordered to block.

Orders to private businesses

Tech companies that operate in India can be ordered to ban content or remove it completely.

In 2016, India blocked a Facebook initiative called “Free Basics,” which was supposed to offer free internet access to a network of websites approved by Meta, Facebook’s parent company. In recent years, social media companies in India have only become more limited in what they are and aren’t allowed to publish on their platforms.

In April 2022, new cybersecurity legislation was made public. The new rules will force all tech and internet companies active in India to regularly report on any cyber issues they encounter. This requires them to provide broad insight into their functionality and give up loads of user data.

As a result, Indian government agencies will have even greater control over private businesses.

Manipulation of content

In 2019, the Oxford Internet Institute identified India as a nation using manipulated information on WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook to amplify certain political propaganda. Commentators (both paid and volunteer) are hired to spread information online and actively shape public opinion. These pro-BJP accounts are tasked to hijack Twitter trends.

While spreading misinformation is not a censorship technique in and of itself, it’s still a tool to influence the flow of information. By limiting or manipulating what information people can or cannot access online, the Indian government holds greater sway over public opinion.

Surveillance and collection of user data

In order to “protect” national security, the Telegraph Act allows Indian authorities to surveil communications. The Central Monitoring System (CMS) is a sophisticated tech network that reportedly allows the government to intercept any online activity directly. Additionally, the government is suspected of using Israeli spy software Pegasus. This type of spyware can access a device’s microphone or camera remotely.

With regard to personal data, the Indian government is growing increasingly invasive. In 2020, plans to develop a National Social Registry surfaced. This database would hold vast amounts of personal data that could be used to track every single citizen.

Additionally, the Intermediary Rules 2021 limit online anonymity. Companies that have more than 5 million registered users—a low threshold in India—must allow users to “voluntarily” provide personal data in order to verify their accounts. Encryption is also continuously under threat in India.

Moreover, the latest wave of cybersecurity regulation requires social media platforms to provide user data for troubleshooting purposes.


How to Get Around Censorship in India

VPN Icon covering up IP addressesIn order to circumvent censorship and get access to a more diverse internet, many Indian citizens use tools like virtual private networks (VPNs). A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and the internet that protects your private data. Moreover, it allows you to place your device virtually anywhere in the world, which gives you great opportunities to unblock geo-restricted content.

However, using a VPN in India is currently under threat by new cybersecurity legislation. The new rules were recently issued by the Computer Emergency Response Team, and require tech companies, including VPN providers, to register the following data:

  • Customer names
  • Customer ownership patterns
  • Customer contact information (including the reason for purchase)

The directions went into effect in June 2022, but many VPN providers started removing their servers from India as a result. Since the point of a VPN is providing you with more online anonymity, there’s a good chance some services will completely pull out of India, because they won’t be able to comply with the new rules.

However, VPN providers are generally known to push back against these types of measures. Moreover, it won’t be much of an issue for those VPN services that do not keep any user data in the first place. These VPNs are so-called no-log VPNs.

The principle is simple: if there is no data to be retained in the first place, a government won’t be able to get its hands on anything.

We discuss this in more detail in our section below on the best VPNs for India.

Is VPN legal iconVPNs have not been made illegal in India, even under the new legislation. Unlike countries like Iran and North Korea, there is no ban on VPN providers.

However, the new cybersecurity law is a clear example of the way the Indian government is making it increasingly difficult to access a VPN. Moreover, using a VPN for any illegal activity doesn’t suddenly make that activity legal.

The Indian police have been known to harass people, especially those that are too critical of the government or frequent activist internet platforms. This is why it’s important to still use common sense.

This includes refraining from using your VPN to file-share adult content or access the Dark Web, for example.


The 3 Best VPNs for India

Best VPNs for India iconAs stated before, one of the key components of VPN use in India is a clear and transparent no-log policy. You want to make sure that your VPN’s security features are completely up to date and that customer support is readily available, should there be any issues.

Whether you’re a citizen or visiting India as a tourist, you’ll want to make sure that the VPN you choose is reliable, secure, and does everything within its power to secure your privacy.

It’s for this reason, we recommend the following three VPNs for India that are still available and working.

1. NordVPN

Screenshot of NordVPN's homepage

NordVPN is our top pick for India, thanks to its strong dedication to privacy.

The provider has been independently audited on multiple occasions. This inspection includes total access to the provider’s operations, contact with employees, and checks on the server network and databases. Each time, auditors have verified NordVPN as a strict no-log policy VPN. This means they don’t keep or store any user data, including connection history, DNS queries, and traffic logs.

As part of its excellent security package, NordVpN offers 265-bit AES data encryption, an excellent firewall, and fast, reliable and protected servers. You can use an anonymous email address to sign up and pay using cryptocurrency to keep all your data private.

Moreover, NordVPN is easy to use and offers great customer support.

NordVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
Only $3.29 a month for a two-year subscription with a 30-day money-back guarantee!
From
$3.29
9.3
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

2. Private Internet Access (PIA)

Screenshot of Private Internet Access VPN provider homepage with added logo in the corner

The second VPN we recommend for users in India is Private Internet Access (PIA). In 2016 and in 2018, PIA was subpoenaed by the FBI to give up user data. Since PIA has a strict zero log policy, they could not offer up any data on either occasion. The provider regularly provides its users with transparency reports.

In terms of encryption, PIA offers the best protocols, including OpenVPN. While they’re not the fastest VPN around, they still feature in our top 5 VPNs. This is mainly due to its wide server network of over 30,000 servers, as well as its relatively affordable price.

PIA
Deal:
PIA is always well-priced with a 30-day money-back guarantee
From
$2.19
8.6
  • Strong focus on privacy and security
  • Good price
  • Fast and stable servers
Visit PIA

3. VyprVPN

Screenshot of VyprVPN website with added logo in the bottom

Finally, we recommend VyprVPN as the third of our verified no-logs VPN providers. Like NordVPN, VyprVPN has been independently audited. They do not hold onto identifiable data without explicit user permission.

VyprVPN fully owns its server network, which reduces the odds of a DNS leak to virtually zero. They also use 256-bit encryption and offer a choice of different VPN protocols.

The only downside to know is that you can’t pay using cryptocurrency. You have to use PayPal or a credit card. However, since VyprVPN doesn’t store any other data, it’ll still be a challenge for authorities to link your online activity back to you.

VyprVPN
From
$8.33
8.0
  • Quick servers for a good price
  • Netflix and torrenting possible
  • Special "Chameleon" technology to protect your data
Visit VyprVPN

Final Thoughts

India has a relatively censored media landscape. While its track record in suppressing free speech, blocking websites, and surveilling its population might not be as bad as in other parts of the world, limitations on each of these fronts have been steadily increasing.

As a result, journalists, activists, and regular citizens don’t always feel safe expressing their opinion, as has become clear during the COVID-19 pandemic and the farmers’ protests of late 2020 and early 2021.

As of April 2022, a new set of cybersecurity legislation will force tech companies to provide insight into their operations. More importantly, the Indian government can order them to give up private user data, which companies are ordered to keep stored for a period of five years. This is supposed to help fight cybercrime, but will primarily limit privacy.

Virtual private networks are also affected by this development. However, if you’re using a VPN provider with excellent security features and a strict no-log policy, data retention will be challenging.

For this reason, we recommend NordVPN as one of the best VPNs for India.

Censorship in India: Frequently Asked Questions

Are you worried about using a VPN in India? Do you want to know more about censorship? Check out our FAQ below to get some answers.

Yes, the internet in India is censored to an extent. In recent years, new cybersecurity legislation has led to mass content removal and made it less safe for journalists and ordinary citizens to express their opinion freely online. Social media companies have been ordered to delete tens of thousands of posts that are critical of the Indian government.

In addition to censorship, surveillance is increasing and user data is more vulnerable to government retention.

While it’s possible to use a VPN in India, new regulations will require tech companies, including VPN services, to store and keep user data for troubleshooting purposes. This data is stored for a period of five years. The government should be able to get access to this data upon request.

However, a good no-log VPN provider, won’t have any data to give up.

Yes, VPNs are legal in India. However, it’s not legal to use a VPN to conduct illegal online activity. Sharing pornographic content, for example, is still illegal, even with a VPN.

Since the election of prime minister Modi, the Indian government keeps social media under tight control and implements strict censorship. This is mainly done to shape public opinion and prevent free debate on sensitive topics. Accounts that are critical of the authorities, risk being banned.

When it comes to the position of religious and ethnic minorities, as well the way the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, tech companies have been ordered to remove critical content.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.