Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Kashmiris and High-Speed Internet: A Tragic Love Story

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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Kashmiris and High-Speed Internet: A Tragic Love Story

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Global Views 360

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January 6, 2021

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People Protesting in Kashmir | Source: Countercurrents

Over sixteen months have passed since the India’s government imposed a ban on high-speed mobile data services in Jammu and Kashmir with the exception of two districts—Ganderbal and Udhampur. This ban has been extended. On 25th December, an order was issued by J&K administration stating that the ban has been extended till Jan 8, 2021. On August 5th, 2019, the central government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A and mobile internet services were temporarily suspended due to security reasons. However, the suspension of high-speed mobile data services is not seeing an end. This has taken a toll on several businesses and students especially during the pandemic.

Iqra Ahmed—a fashion designer—took over four years to build her fashion brand online. Her clothing brand, Tuv Palav had a great recognition online through social media where Iqra had over 50,000 followers. She used Instagram to promote Kashmiri clothing. In August 2019, when the government revoked the erstwhile state’s constitutional autonomy, the valley saw a communication blackout and Iqra lost a large portion of her customer base. About 5 months later, 2G internet was partially restored, that is in Jan 2020 but social media services like Instagram were still inaccessible.

Iqra Ahmed, fashion designer from Kashmir | Source: Gyawun

In desperation, Iqra and many others like her opted to use Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

VPN allows users to hide their location while browsing the web, effectively helping in circumventing the ban. Kashmir saw a sudden surge of interest in VPN applications a few months after the ban.

According to several residents of Kashmir, the use of VPNs created a tension between civilians and the army. In several regions of South Kashmir, Army personnel allegedly checked the phones of youth for VPN apps. If any such apps were found, the youth were either thrashed or their phones were seized and they were bullied and harassed to collect it from the army camps.

“I was traveling to Shopian (district in J&K) when our cab was stopped at a checkpoint. The army man asked the guy sitting beside me how many VPNs he has on his phone. The guy replied none. ‘You better not have VPNs, otherwise, you know what we will do,’” Shefali Rafiq, a local girl, narrated her experience on Twitter. Using VPN was not a choice made for entertainment but one that was made out of desperation. Several people hadn’t seen the faces of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings and other family members living away from Jammu and Kashmir in months.

For instance, 61-year-old Shameema Banoo hadn’t seen her younger son in over 6 months. Parray, her younger son works at Riyadh, Saudhi Arabia as a hotel manager. “Last time on the evening of August 4th, I saw him through a video call. It was only after six months, on 5th of February, that my elder son brought a VPN application in his phone, by which I got connected with my beloved son,” said Shameema with tears and a smile.

However, several Kashmiris were unaware about the security issues that come with free VPNs. Hackers have breached the bank accounts of several people across the valley. In some cases, when users used VPNs for e-banking, hackers have also managed to withdraw their money. Surfshark, a UK based VPN company conducted a research on free VPNs which revealed that these VPNs can potentially jeopardize more than just user browsing history. Free VPNs build a profitable business model by selling user information to bidders which includes government agencies or authorities. In some cases, third parties were directly allowed to access user information. On the grounds of their study, Surfshark stated that free VPN service providers were culprits of user data abuse.

The people of Kashmir seemed to be unaware of these issues. People who travelled outside Kashmir, came back with seven to eight VPNs as backups as authorities were blocking and barring VPNs every day. The government also cracked down VPN users by filing an open FIR under which over hundreds of suspected users were probed and arrested several for allegedly misusing social media to promote “unlawful activities and secessionist ideology.”

On 4th March 2020, use of social media was legalized in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiris didn’t forget about those who supported them during the times of restriction. Kashmiris have developed a strange love for VPN developers past the customs of law. They showed their hospitality and gratitude to all VPN developers. Among several VPNs, LetsVPN was widely used. Kashmiris expressed their kindness by sending chai samovar, a bundle of kangris sonn sund pond (golden coin), besrakh tooker (a basket of sweets) and other gifts to the Canadian based creator of LetsVPN. These are the items that are usually sent by the bride’s family to the to-be in laws as a token of respect.

Another user shared on twitter that the experience of using VPN applications was similar to the Islam holy month of Ramzan, at first, a little hardship is endured but as the days go by, one gets used to it and after the month is over, it is missed badly and dearly.

However, Kashmiris haven’t met their happy endings yet. The ban of high speed mobile data is taking a toll on students. Several students have missed an entire online semester and were even unable to take their exams. Several students wrote to the union education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal voicing their concerns about the apathy that universities all over India expressed toward the students of Kashmir.

Rashida Bashir, a 20-year-old sociology student from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi said that she and some of her friends were not able to join classes using 2G. “How can we appear in the online examination without any issues?” she questioned. She expressed that JMI asked the students to ensure high-speed, uninterrupted internet connectivity and also that owning a laptop was considered a necessity. She further stated that the students were asked to ensure that they have uninterrupted electricity while taking the exams. She mentioned that everybody did not own a laptop or WiFi connection and she mentioned that Handwara, North Kashmir, her place of residence experienced frequent power cuts.                                                                                  

“My classmates are privileged as the internet comes easy for them. But I have to go through a lot of issues and I’m suffering” said Masoodi. Durdana Masoodi, a student from Miranda House, Delhi said that she reached out to one of her professors for help who understood her problem and agreed to send her the lecture notes. However, that did not resolve the problem. It isn’t easy to download notes on the internet either. Anything over file size one-megabyte would take over an hour to download.

Many students, especially girls in Kashmir dropped out after 10th and 12th grade due to the pandemic which coincided with ban of high-speed internet. Students from Kashmir urged their schools and universities to scrap the autocratic decision to conduct online proctored examinations. They requested the union education minister and universities to consider their situation and sought help to resolve this issue.

It is important to deploy high level of security measures in J&K due to long standing issues with Pakistan and current impasse with China. However, the government must also consider the fact that education of students, careers of many, and livelihood of the people during this pandemic is at stake due to the ban on high speed internet. It should also understand that throttling the internet in J&K, instead of strengthening security, may prove to be more of a security threat by further alienating the people who are adversely impacted by it.

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January 18, 2021 2:21 PM

The Toxicity in Video Games and Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077, the most awaited video game was released on consoles and PC on 10th of December, 2020. The game went under 10 years of build-up and had kept gamers waiting for over 8 years. Cyberpunk 2077 is inspired by a cult-favourite tabletop roleplaying game. The video game was designed by well-known Polish studio, CD Projekt Red. Cyberpunk was the studio’s first big console game since The Witcher 3: Wild hunt which was an extraordinarily triumphant game that won numerous awards after its launch in 2015.

The popular video game, when released, faced backlash from the gaming community and non-gamers for several reasons. To many observers and gamers, Cyberpunk 2077 even proved to be an absolute failure. Several gamers called out the game developers for the promotion of sexiest ideologies and transphobia. However, the reviews weren’t well received by the fans. Cyberpunk 2077 fans responded with unacceptable abuses, harrasing and hateful messages and even rape and death threats.

Keanu Reeves in Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 released ample previews, trailers, motion pictures and marketing material. Aside from this, the appearence of popular Canadian actor, Keanu Reeves as a character in the game carved the expectations of gamers and promised a sexy and kinky world of futuristic and revolutionary action. CD Projekt Red, one of Europe’s most successful video game company announced Cyberpunk 2077 project in 2012 and released the first trailer in 2013

The game is set in an alternate timeline in the city of California. The streets in the game are owned by tyrannical corporations. Everyone in the game modifies their body with illegal technology. Much of the state in the video game setting is said to be suffering from the impacts of a major nuclear attack which happened years ago. Every player gets to be a cyber-enhanced human who has to fight against physical and psychological threats to their survival. The game character of Keanu Reeves comes in as your sidekick.

In 2018, the developers insisted and had assured the gamers that Cyberpunk 2077 would not include in game purchases. CD Projekt Red did not want to lock any content behind a paywall. The studio was also insistent that the game would come out only when it was completely “ready”. They announced that the release would take place in April 2020 but it was delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other quality problems that the game was facing. When it was finally released in December 2020, gamers expected their experience of the game to be “worth the wait”. However, the video game wasn’t well revived by all. In spite of several months of work that went into making and developing the game, the game was launched with several technical issues. Players on both PC and consoles were having terrible experiences. As a result of multiple glitches and technical problems, the characters’ faces were obscured and the game would reset randomly. Some of the environments or areas of the game map was unappealing. The game even caused consoles to crash repeatedly and sometimes sacrificed players’ progress. One glitch led to characters’ breasts and penises being exposed. The characters’ genitals would poke out of their clothes. CD Projeckt Red offered refunds to players who were disappointed with the product. In fact, they updated a self-review discouraging gamers from playing the game on console until the game was fixed and improved.

Cyberpunk 2077 was roundly criticized by reviewers, game designers, industry insiders and other gamers across the gaming community. The wait and hype for the game had already created a fanbase which turned toxic by harassing reviewers who criticised the game.

There is another reason why the game wasn’t well received. Cyberpunk 2077 transphobia was apparent in the game contradicting the fact that the developers had claimed that the game was ahead of its time. The game has an incredibly detailed character creation menu. The players can control several aspects of their character’s appearance including the shapes and size of the genitals. The game even allows players to decline the option of including genitals to their characters. However, this isn’t the problem and is in fact appreciable. The idea of not determining gender by the character’s genitals in fact made many trans players happy. But this soon turned into disbelief and disappointment. The gamers realised that the game actually assigned the gender to the characters not based on their genitals but rather by the voice. Characters with higher-pitched voices were identified as females and characters with deep-voiced characters were assigned male pronouns. This purports the toxic idea that people’s gender can be determined by certain traits. A non-sexist video game would determine the gender of a player’s character based on an independent choice made by players themselves. This is uninfluenced by other physical traits or qualities.

Several reviewers called out Cyberpunk 2077 for promoting sexist ideologies. Unfortunately, toxic fans harassed the reviewers. “You just KNOW when you're going to get harassed. If the game with all the hype has anything wrong with it, and you're honest about that, or even just want to provide any context outside of ‘it's fun’, you're going to get harassed. It's a given.” These were precisely what Susan Arendt, a podcast host quoted. She even second guessed herself whether sharing her true opinions was worth the hateful, threatening and harassing messages that she received.

Controversial Tweet by Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter Handle

In the early days of arcade, gaming was a family activity. The popular male dominance and stereotype that only boys or men are good at video games were perpetuated in the past three decades. We observe this change due to sexualisation of video games. Today, most video games aren’t family friendly as they include explicit and sexual content. This, in fact, is a marketing tactic used by developers to target the male population. In 2018, a Cyberpunk 2077 fan who was awaiting the game at that point of time tweeted that the user wanted to see more from the “guys” at CDPR. In response to this tweet, CD Projekt Red tweeted, “Did you just assume their gender?!”. On the look of it, the tweet seems innocent but it is a joke at the expense of the trans community. After receiving backlash to the tweet, CDPR took it down and issued an apology staying sorry to “all those offended”. The apology seems like another targeted mockery and CDPR did no right by not taking responsibility for its actions.

Not only is Cyberpunk2077 transphobic and sexist, it is non user friendly as well. The game has several epilepsy triggers without any warnings about it. There are several instances and situations in the game where the effects and the graphics are brighter, louder and flashing. This is a general trigger for seizures. Liana Rupert, a player of Cyberpunk 2077 suffered a major seizure and at several moments felt that she was close to another one. After bringing this to the notice of CD Projekt Red, the company agreed to add trigger warnings wherever necessary.  

The gaming industry has definitely taken a few steps forward in terms of inclusivity of all genders but has also taken a few steps backward. While all genders are welcome, they still face harassment and judgement for simply existing in the community and need a lot more improvement.

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