Censorship in India: How to Circumvent Local Restrictions

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Censorship in India: A Quick Guide

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

The country generally censors different types of content, including:

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

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 requires companies, including VPN services, to store user data and provide it to the government upon request. This is why we recommend using a stric no-log VPN, such as Surfshark.

Since Surfshark 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 is one of the biggest tech markets in the world. Hundreds of millions of people go online every day. At the same time, government-ordered restrictions on internet use are rampant and internet freedom is in decline.

In the most recent Freedom of the Net index, Washington-based Freedom House categorizes India as “partly free.” India is notorious for its nationwide shutdowns, social media censorship, and growing surveillance.

Moreover, as of June 2022, companies are required to collect and store user data for up to five years. This makes it challenging for virtual private network (VPN) providers to conduct business in India.

Wondering how to keep your data safe? In this article, we catch you up to speed when it comes to the new legislation and the state of censorship in India.

Media Freedom in India: Growing Limitations

Infographic showing media freedom; growing limitations

On paper, 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.

Freedom of the press

Independent media outlets in India do not enjoy extensive freedom. According to Reporters Without Borders, there’s a high concentration of media ownership. Thousands of outlets are in the hands of only a handful of companies.

To make things worse, press limitations often extend to journalists. 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.

A striking example of this was when 100 female Muslim journalists, activists, and politicians were listed as “for sale” on a fake auction app, earlier this year. This is not the first time such humiliation campaigns have occurred.

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 enforced 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 video streaming services must adhere to a special Code of Ethics. According to this code, creators are ordered to consider whether their content affects India’s 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 with 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. 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.

As a result, disagreements about content removal are driving a wedge between the authorities and social media companies. In 2020, the Indian government requested Twitter to remove nearly 10,000 posts. For comparison, the count was 248 in 2017.

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

In 2021, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology published new guidelines for social media platforms. The new guidelines put encrypted messaging 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 seriously threatens their access to free information.

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 inspect 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 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 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 when discussing sensitive topics that the government frowns upon.

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 quite vague 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 generally not tolerated in Indian media. Political information can be blocked by court and government orders, 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. Among the international community, 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 Indian premier Modi or the way the Indian regime executes its policies.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems in India were gripped by deadly wave after deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The government was quick to censor any criticism of the way it handled the pandemic.

Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have all been ordered in the past 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.

Another example is the government’s response to the farming protests of late 2020 and early 2021. When farmers in India began protesting the deregulation of the sector by the Indian government, the police responded violently.

Protesters have been detained 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 launched 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.” As of October 2022, 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.

Pornographic websites, however, 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, back in 2015. A few days later, this ban was lifted again.

Now, restrictions are aimed at the publication or transmission of pornographic material. Anyone who shares “obscene material” in electronic form can be punished with a three- to a 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 block access to certain content is by shutting down the internet altogether. India is responsible for the highest amount of national internet shutdowns in the world: in 2019 alone, the Indian government ordered 121 out of 213 internet shutdowns globally.

By shutting down the internet, Indian authorities prevent people from accessing vital necessities such as their online finances, medical records, or educational services. On top of that, people are forced away from important information on current affairs.

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

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 spoofing, 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

Social media 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. All tech and internet companies active in India have to report regularly 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 voluntary) 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.

Apps and Websites Blocked in India

Censorship iconThe amount of social media platforms, news channels, video streaming services, and popular websites that are banned in India keeps increasing.

While the full list of banned sites is too extensive to include, the table below provides and overview of the most commonly used apps and websites that are currently censored in India.

BLOCKED SITESTATUS
BBCOccasionally blocked
DuckDuckGoOccasionally blocked
FacebookCensored
GitHubPermanently unavailable
Google (Drive, Maps, Docs, Gmail)Occasionally blocked
HBOPermanently unavailable
InstagramCensored
LikeePermanently unavailable
New York TimesOccasionally blocked
PinterestOccasionally blocked
PornhubPermanently unavailable
RedditOccasionally blocked
SnapchatOccasionally blocked
The Pirate BayPermanently unavailable
TikTokPermanently unavailable
TinderOccasionally blocked
TwitchOccasionally blocked
TwitterCensored
VimeoOccasionally blocked
Wayback MachinePermanently unavailable
WeChatPermanently unavailable
WeTransferPermanently unavailable

The great thing is that you can easily get around these restrictions with a VPN!

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. As of June 22, the Computer Emergency Response Team requires tech companies, including VPN providers, to register the following data:

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

Many VPN providers have started removing their servers from India, because they are not able to comply with the new rules. However, VPN providers are generally known to push back against these types of measures.

Moreover, the new rules won’t affect 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 Indian law. 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 be cautious about your online activity and use common sense. This includes refraining from using your VPN to file-share adult content or access the Dark Web, for example.

What Makes a Good VPN for India?

What to Look for When Choosing a VPN iconWhen choosing a VPN to use in India, it’s important to pay attention to a couple of key characteristics:

  • Strong encryption: The VPN should offer the latest encryption protocols, including WireGuard and OpenVPN.
  • Logging policy: No-logs VPNs are recommended, as they don’t store any data about your activity.
  • Obfuscation features: Obfuscation helps you circumvent strict censorship controls.
  • Server network: A VPN with a wider server network gives you more choice.

The Three 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 need a realiable and secure VPN that does everything within its power to secure your privacy.

For this reason we recommend the following three VPNs for India that are still available and working.

1. Surfshark: The best VPN for India overall

Screenshot of Surfshark VPN provider website homepage

Features:

  • Strict no-log VPN with RAM-only servers
  • Virtual servers in India
  • 3,200 servers in 95 countries
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Very affordable

With multiple VPN providers leaving India, Surfshark is one of few services that still has servers located in India. These are virtual servers that are physically located in Singapore, the Netherlands, and the UK.

But this is not the only benefit of Surfshark’s server network: with over 3,200 servers across 95 countries, Surfshark is an excellent VPN for bypassing censorship.

In terms of security, Surfshark outperforms most providers. Besides necessary features such as AES-256 bit encryption, an automatic kill switch, and fantastic VPN protocols, Surfshark has a special NoBorders mode, designed for regions with high levels of censorship.

On top of that, they’re a verified zero logs VPN and don’t store any data about user activity, so even if they’re forced, they’ll have nothing to hand over to the authorities. An additional feature, is MultiHop. This allows you to run your connection via two VPN servers, which gives you a double layer of encryption.

Finally, Surfshark is a very affordable VPN that allows you to connect an unlimited number of devices to one account. Starting at just a few dollars per month, Surfshark is our #1 best VPN for India.

Curious? Surfshark offers a 30-day money back guarantee that gives you ample opportunity to try the VPN for yourself.

Surfshark
Deal:
Safe and anonymous internet for only $2.05 a month
From
$2.05
9.0
  • Very user-friendly and works with Netflix and torrents
  • 30-day money-back guarantee. No questions asked!
  • Cheap with many extra options
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2. NordVPN: A secure VPN for India with obfuscated servers

Screenshot of NordVPN website homepage with added logo in the corner

Features:

  • Independently audited multiple times
  • 5,600+ servers across 59 countries
  • Pay for your subscription with cryptocurrency
  • Fast and reliable servers
  • 24/7 live chat

NordVPN has decided to pull its servers out of India for the time being. Still, it’s an excellent VPN that deserves its spot in our top 3 as a result of its strong dedication to privacy.

On multiple occassions, auditors have verified NordVPN as a strict no-logging 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.

They have a server network with over 5,600+ servers in more than 59 countries. With Nord’s obfuscation technology, your VPN traffic can be masked as regular traffic. This is a great feature for India. Moreover, NordVPN offers dedicated IP addresses, which allow you to use a VPN server for yourself.

Finally, NordVPN is easy to use and offers great customer support, so it’s a great choice for users in India.

NordVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
Only $2.99 a month for a two-year subscription with a 30-day money-back guarantee!
From
$2.99
9.3
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
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3. Private Internet Access (PIA)

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

Features:

  • Very large server network (30,000+ servers)
  • Affordable and secure VPN
  • Strict no-logs provider
  • Ad blocker and malware detector

The final 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. Were something similar to happen with India’s authorities, your data will be safe. The provider also regularly provides its users with transparency reports.

In terms of encryption, PIA offers the best protocols, including OpenVPN. While they’re not the very 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.

For added security, PIA offers a malware detector and ad blocker via their MACE feature. Torrenting also works on PIA servers. Finally, you can also secure up to 10 different devices with a single Private Internet Access subscription.

PIA
Deal:
PIA is always well-priced with a 30-day money-back guarantee
From
$2.03
8.6
  • Strong focus on privacy and security
  • Good price
  • Fast and stable servers
Visit PIA

Best Free VPN for India (Use With Caution!)

Free VPN shield icon with trophy next to itWhile you might be tempted to choose a free VPN over a premium VPN, there are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Weak security: Free VPNs often use lax security protocols.
  • Limited servers: You only have a few servers to choose from.
  • Data caps: You only have limited data volume.

However, there are some great free VPNs out there. We’d like to highlight one in particular: ProtonVPN.

ProtonVPN: Best Free VPN for India

ProtonVPN logo icon with transparent backgroundProtonVPN comes with a free subscription that offers decent security and unlimited bandwidth. It provides users with industry-standard 256-bit encryption, as well as the renowned OpenVPN protocol.

The provider has a zero logs policy and even offers a kill switch, which keeps your data safe in case your VPN connection unexpectedly drops.

There are apps available for all major operating systems, including Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS.

The server network is very small for free users (Japan, the United States, the Netherlands). However, these three server locations will still allow you to unblock plenty of content for users in India.

Want to see for yourself? Click the button below.

Visit ProtonVPN

VPN Doesn’t Work? Try These Circumvention Tools Instead

The Indian government exercises a great deal of power over tech companies, including VPN providers. The recent cyber legislation is an indication of its views on privacy and censorship. At times, you might find the website of your VPN provider inaccessible.

This is why it’s good to be aware of alternative tools you can use.

Tor

Tor LogoYou might have heard of the Tor browser before. This anonymous browser gives you access to the Dark Web, but it’s also often used as a tool to bypass censorship restrictions.

Tor gives multiple layers of encryption to your data, completely anonymizing it in the process. Popular websites you might be trying to reach, such as BBC News, have special Tor versions.

Browser extensions

Browser extension iconIf you’re looking for ways to access dynamic online content, in particular social media apps, you can try using a special browser extension. The following extensions are all designed to unblock social networks:

While we do recommend using a VPN as the safest and most reliable way to get around censorship, there are many other ways to bypass restrictions.

Get Around Growing Censorship in India

Get around censorship iconPress freedom in India is increasingly limited. 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, censorship on each of these fronts is worsening.

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.

New cybersecurity legislation introduced in April 2022 imposes greater regulation on tech companies, forcing them to provide greater details about their operations.

More importantly, the Indian government can order companies 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 Surfshark or 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 in the first place 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.