India blocks more than 800 sites in web porn crackdown

Indian authorities want to prevent porn becoming a social nuisance. (Alain Jocard/AFP)

Indian authorities want to prevent porn becoming a social nuisance. (Alain Jocard/AFP)

Indian authorities have moved to block more than 800 pornography websites in the first major crackdown on the internet in the world’s largest democracy.

The move immediately prompted a debate about censorship and freedom.

Reports that websites had been blocked emerged over the weekend as telecommunications companies began to implement government instructions.

The aim was to prevent pornography becoming a social nuisance, NN Kaul, a spokesman at the department of telecommunications, said.

“Free and open access to porn websites has been brought under check,” Kaul told Reuters.

“We don’t want them to become a social nuisance.”

      A 17-page government order , issued on 31 July and leaked to freedom of speech activists, listed offending sites and directed service providers to block access on the grounds of morality and decency. The 857-strong list includes some sites that appear unlikely threats, such as a number of comic sites and Playboy.com.

The immediate reaction to the ban among commentators appeared broadly hostile.

Bestselling novelist Chetan Bhagat tweeted : “Porn ban is anti-freedom, impractical, not enforceable. Politically not very smart too. Avoidable. Let’s not manage people’s private lives.”

Experts said the ban, which the government apparently intended to remain secret, may overstep current laws in India.

“It is illegitimate because it is not as though the government has found these websites unlawful ... This is a blanket ban and the government has not thought through the consequences,” said Pranesh Prakash, of the Centre for Internet and Society , an Indian thinktank.

Provisions exist under existing obscenity laws for blocking individual sites, but not for imposing sweeping restrictions, Prakash said.

Last month, the country’s supreme court refused to impose such a ban after hearing a petition from a lawyer, acting in a personal capacity, who argued that online pornography fuelled sex crimes.

      India has been hit a by wave of sexual violence in recent years, the causes of which are hotly disputed. Many commentators say it is a consequence of the efforts of a growing number of women, even in remote areas, to claim basic freedoms denied for centuries. Others point to India’s acute gender imbalance, tenacious caste system and entrenched patriarchal culture. Some conservatives have blamed factors including the influence of Bollywood films, western influences, women’s clothing and even overconsumption of junk food.

The supreme court said individuals should be free to view pornography in private.  

But the court also asked the home ministry to submit its views on how it could restrict access to some pornographic material. Kaul said the government acted after ministry officials sent a letter to the telecom secretary.

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Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project in Delhi, said: “The timing is odd. It is clear that the current government are much more open to the idea of imposing a ban than the previous one. It is a signal.”

Over the weekend, several sites became inaccessible and displayed messages that they were blocked on instructions of the competent authority. The hashtag #Pornban trended on Twitter.

India has the second largest number of internet users after China. Social media and smartphone use is growing rapidly.

In 2011, India urged social network companies to screen content and remove offensive material. A year later, the government faced criticism for ordering dozens of Twitter accounts blocked for spreading rumours.

Earlier this year, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the telecommunications minister, angrily denied any plans to block pornography websites when contacted by the Guardian.

There have been previous attempts to block websites, some over concerns about extremism, others for pornographic content, but none on the scale of the new crackdown.

“Politically [the government] are pushing the debate. That might backfire as people might speak up against the ban,” said Kovacs.

Bollywood and Hollywood movies are regularly censored in India, with regulators often forcing producers to edit dialogue and scenes to suit audiences in the generally conservative country.

Demand for porn, however, seems strong. Pornhub, an adult entertainment website included in the ban, last year said India ranked fifth in the world for daily visitors.

Officials said the government was working on a long-term solution and suggested the ban will not remain indefinitely.

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