On Wednesday, reports on social media appeared of Kashmiri WhatsApp users leaving group chats in droves. This was a surprise to friends and relatives outside the region given that India has shut down Kashmir’s internet for over four months as part of a dispute over the area’s autonomy.
Some thought the activity might be sign of a further crackdown, but, as first reported by BuzzFeed News, the accounts are being automatically removed in line with Facebook’s inactivity policy. If users don’t log into their account for 120 days (four months), they’re deactivated, meaning individuals will have to sign up to the service again.
“To maintain security and limit data retention, WhatsApp accounts generally expire after 120 days of inactivity,” a spokesperson for Facebook told BuzzFeed News. “When that happens, those accounts automatically exit their WhatsApp groups. People will need to be re-added to groups upon regaining access to the Internet and joining WhatsApp again.”
4 months of inactivity, WhatsApp accounts from Kashmir are getting deleted. Weird to see individuals you haven’t spoken for all these months ‘leave’ WA groups whereas in reality an important part of their digital imprint – images, videos, texts & memories attached – vanishing.
— Khalid Shah (@khalidbshah) December 4, 2019
WhatsApp is very important for communication in India. It’s the largest market for the Facebook-owned messaging app, with some 340 million users spread across the subcontinent (compared to 68 million users in the US, the app’s third biggest market).
According to estimates from The Times of India, around one percent of India’s smartphone users live in Kashmir, meaning millions are likely affected by the deactivation policy.
On Twitter, friends and family reported the dismay they felt at seeing accounts removed from group chats previously used to share updates and news. “I know they would not have been able to see my messages anyway, but this is heartbreakingly symbolic,” said one user. Another, a Kashmiri student living in northern India, told BuzzFeed News: “When I first saw what was happening, I thought it was the government of India that was doing this.”
Some users affected by the deactivation may permanently lose their account data (including chat logs and shared images and video) if they haven’t backed up this information through the app. WhatsApp notes in its support documents that once accounts are deactivated, users have 30 days to access them before they are “completely deleted.”
We’ve reached out to Facebook to confirm that this policy will still affect those unable to log into their accounts in Kashmir due to the internet shutdown.