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Ban first, debate later? Govt is on a dangerous slope by blocking 857 porn websites

Is it gone or isn't it? Internet users in India were outraged as news slowly spread of the fact that multiple pornographic websites have been blocked by the government. Reports now indicate that the government may have blocked over 800 such websites by issuing notices to internet service providers.

Reddit India thread, was where it first surfaced that some porn websites were inaccessible and were either showing a blank page or the message, “The site has been blocked as per the instructions of Competent Authority.”

As Tech2 reported on Sunday, users of MTNL, BSNL and ACT broadband have claimed that porn websites aren’t opening on their systems whereas Airtel, Tata Photon and cable internet users are not facing any such issues. Attempts to access sites like Pornhub and Youporn using a MTNL connection in Mumbai were also inaccessible. Attempts to access it over Vodafone on a mobile were also unsuccessful.

 Ban first, debate later? Govt is on a dangerous slope by blocking 857 porn websites

AFP image

The government has now confirmed that it has issued notices on 31 July to internet service providers across the country to block 850 pornographic sites and they have been blocked over the weekend, reported the Economic Times.

The Hindustan Times quoted an unnamed source as saying that certain websites had been reviewed and were found to be disseminating 'anti-social activities', and some of them were pornographic, due to which notices had been issued to ISPs to block them. The source was quoted as saying that action was taken under section 79 of the Information Technology Act.

The section of law says that a network service provider won't be liable to face action if it can prove that an offence or contravention "was committed without his knowledge or that he had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such offence or contravention."

The report also quoted Information Technology secretary, RS Sharma as saying that the ministry had merely followed Supreme Court directives.

Other sources said that there hadn't been any crackdown and the denial of access to porn sites was 'temporary' and said it was a prelude "to the creation of a regular regulatory oversight", reported the Times of India. The sites have been blocked following the Supreme Court's observations in July about the failure of the home ministry to block child pornography on multiple sites.

Telecom operators have already said it will be difficult to block all pornographic content without any clear directives from the government.

The blocking of certain websites seems to have come after the government told the Supreme Court on 8 July that it would take all possible measures to block pornographic sites, particularly those dealing with child pornography. A bench headed by Chief Justice H L Dattu had expressed its unhappiness at the time.

Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand had told the bench, "We will do whatever is possible".

However, when on 9 July the government asked for an interim order to block pornographic websites, the Chief Justice of India refused.

"Such interim orders cannot be passed by this court. Somebody may come to the court and say look I am above 18 and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room. It is a violation of Article 21," Chief Justice HL Dattu had observed in court.

It isn't very clear yet on how the government has decided to block the 800 websites and there's no official justification given yet. Medianama had reported in November 2014 about the Indian government  meeting with ISPs on the blocking of pornographic websites and sites that can carry anti-social content. The article also noted the problems with introducing a web filter like China, including the fact that it would be done at the discretion of the ministry and officials, something which could be dangerous for the freedom of the internet in the country.

One example of how the power can be used arbitrarily is an instance in which China banned nicknames like 'Obama' and 'Putin' in the country in February as it cracked down on malicious and pornographic content.

In India, we already have cases of political leaders using the Information Techonology Act to target critics. Pornography concerning minors does needs to be banned, but ideally it should be based on complaint-based and not on a ham-handed ban that hits other websites. Right now, there seems to be a 'ban first, debate later' policy and that can't be a good thing. There are also sections in the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code that allows any person with a complaint against something on the internet to take action against it. Social media like Facebook and Twitter also allow the reportage of malicious content, particularly pornography, that can be removed when required.

This is why the government's sudden decision to block the websites in a non-transparent manner does not inspire any confidence. In fact the previous government made a similar misstep in banning Vimeo, Github and others only to retract and restore their availability in the country. Banning pornography without any public classification or explanation is exactly what skeptics have been worried about when it comes to the government curbing internet freedom.

For those who do want to access pornography there will be alternate means to access it, like in China, through proxy servers and other means. But the government's arbitrary ban on over 800 sites is a dangerous misstep towards hurting the freedom of the internet, something its citizens will be hoping it won't take too many more of.

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Updated Date: Aug 03, 2015 13:20:02 IST