Indian govt's porn ban is empty, illusory measure; tackling sexual assault needs real intent and action

The porn ban covers less than 2 percent of porn websites online. Since it is clearly not about banning porn, what is the porn ban really about?

To understand what the most recent porn ban is all about, we must start with a number: 827 websites have been blocked under the most recent order by the Uttarakhand High Court. How did the high court come up with this number?

Its story begins with the tragic 2012 Delhi gangrape case. In the wake of the tragedy, an Indore-based advocate, Kamlesh Vaswani, decided pornography is the chief cause for crimes against women, and embarked on a crusade against porn websites. It was he who came up with a list of 857 websites when he filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 2013 to get these sites banned.

The Supreme Court put the then UPA government on notice, which expressed its helplessness in the matter of taking action against pornography websites whose servers were outside India. The case ran till July 2015, when then Chief Justice of India HL Dattu ruled that the Supreme Court cannot tell an adult what to do in the privacy of their room.

That would be where the list would have died its natural death, but like Mihir Virani on Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, it found a way to be reborn. Vaswani passed the list on to Pinky Anand, a top lawyer in the BJP government, who then passed it on to the ministry of telecom for “appropriate action”. Was this action the careful crafting of laws that regulate cyberspace? Or perhaps a committee to find out the ill effects of pornography and how best to fight them? No. The government did what was easiest for it to do: send a circular to internet service providers asking them to ban the list of websites.

After realising their order had no defensible legal basis, and facing both critique by intellectuals and ridicule and jokes from the masses (remember all those porn ban jokes?), the ministry backtracked in 2015. It was not a pretty retreat, with the government first trying to put the blame on the Supreme Court, and then telling ISPs to “voluntarily” block websites. One of them, Reliance Jio, actually took the government up on its offer.

Which brings us to the present day. Again, it is a court order that has prompted this ban. Once again, it is a horrifying gang rape in a Dehradun school that has prompted the order. According to reports, four students assaulted a girl after they watched porn clips. The court has hoped that this order to internet service providers will “avoid an adverse influence on the impressionable minds of children.” But did the court find out how best to go about achieving this goal? Or encourage the government to find out? No, it turned to Vaswani’s list instead. The government found 30 websites to be not pornographic, and so we arrived at the number 827.

Now that we know of how the ban came about, we can infer everything that this ban is not about. Firstly, this is not about internet censorship. It is clear that it is a very tightly defined ban and does not spread to other parts of the internet. Equally, it is a ban that the Supreme Court has found constitutionally indefensible, meaning it will be struck down were it to be challenged. That the government has chosen to implement a ban rather than pass legislation shows that legislation would likely be unpopular. If we want to discuss internet censorship, there is the much more pressing use by the government of internet blackouts and arbitrary bans, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. It’d do us well to pay attention to that instead.

Nor is this ban about punishing ‘safe’ pornographic sites and therefore diverting traffic to unsafe sites as Pornhub.com’s brilliant public relations team has argued. They are right that they have more controls than smaller players, but anyone can upload a revenge porn video on the website and have it spread widely, well before it can be flagged and taken down. Also, a lot of the content is unregulated, meaning that a lot of videos repeat toxic narratives, objectify women, and misrepresent sex and consent. It is hard to see Pornhub.com as a solution to the nastier consequences of pornography. Luckily, we have the enterprising Cindy Gallop and her lovely website, makelovenotporn.tv, to show us how it is to be done.

Next, the ban is not about preventing sexual assault. Even a cursory analysis of the effect of porn on sexual assault shows that increase in access to pornography actually reduces cases of sexual assault. There are many causes of sexual assault: rape culture led by our esteemed leaders, toxic masculinity, and the absence of any conversation around sex, leave alone a comprehensive programme of sex education. But these issues will take sensitivity, intelligence, creativity and effort to solve, and will also require questioning religious traditions and social customs, something this government is particularly loath to do. If anything, the tragic court cases have been used as an excuse to implement the porn ban.

That this has precious little to do with sexual assault is made even clearer by how utterly ineffective this ban is. Remember how Reliance Jio voluntarily blocked websites on the list? Pornhub.com circumvented it by switching to Pornhub.net. If porn was truly causing sexual assault, and was a dragon that needed slaying, would our measure be so utterly ineffectual?

Which brings us to the final point: that this ban is not even about banning internet pornography.

If it was, it would start by finding out how many pornographic websites exist. The number in 2010, according to Ogi Ogas, the author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, was 42,337 of the million most popular websites in the world. That makes our porn ban cover less than 2 percent of popular pornographic sites — a fig leaf that wouldn’t even hide the genitals — and this is all the way back in 2010. Other estimates count the total number of porn websites in the millions.

So if it is not about any of these things, what is it about? First, like with our Statue of Unity, it is about perception rather than action. Solving the real problems here — sexual assault, and our silence around sex that is filled up by the toxic narratives of pornography — is complex and challenging. Much easier to make a show of doing something about pornography, which will appease the anti-porn constituency in your electorate, while actually doing so little that the pro-porn electorate will not be too outraged.

Second, it is about the limits of national governments in the age of the internet. If anything, this porn ban is likely to educate our youngsters in the use of proxies and routers, making them even more proficient at circumventing any other bans the government implements. Governments are helpless to regulate a land where anarchic coders are constantly coming up with ways to defeat control and surveillance.

Third, it is about another opportunity lost for a meaningful conversation about the prevention of sexual assault, and even the harmful effects of porn. Pornography is not innocent. There are entire communities of people online who have had their lives significantly disrupted by porn addiction. Revenge porn has devastating consequences for those featured in it. And the most horrifying pornography problem in India is not online websites — it is rape videos being sold offline.

Unfortunately, the government cannot hope to regulate internet pornography. States have too little influence over the internet, and they cannot meaningfully influence the supply of pornography. Given a force that you cannot stop, the only appropriate response is to arm the citizenry with ways to deal with this onslaught. This should have been used as an occasion to have India take the lead on comprehensive and progressive sex education for all its adolescents, including a discussion on the ethical and proper use of pornography. Mixed in with it could be a sexual assault prevention training programme like Kenya’s that conducted workshops with both girls and boys in schools. The programme has demonstrated its efficacy in studies. If anyone from the government is taking note: please stop investing time and effort in empty, illusory measures. The harms here are real. They need real intent and action from you.

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Updated Date: Nov 30, 2018 13:00:50 IST

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