The Indian government is seriously looking at banning online pornography

The Indian government is seriously exploring the idea of web filters in order to block pornography and other objectionable web content.

The Indian government is seriously exploring the idea of web filters in order to block pornography and other objectionable web content, says a report in Medianama. The Medianama report is based on the minutes of a meeting put out by Department of Electronics and Information technology (DeitY). The meeting  took place on 5 September 2014.

Minister of Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad was present, along with Computer Emergency Response Team of India (CERT-IN) head Gulshan Rai, officials from DoT, Deity, CBI, and representatives of industry bodies like IAMAI, FICCI, ASSOCHAM, CII.

According to the report, the meeting was primarily focussed on dealing with issue of pornography in India, and how the government could ensure that access to such sites could be banned completely. The meeting also mentioned the issue of how social media was being misused by certain miscreants in the country to spread communal disharmony. The minutes of the meeting are available here.

The primary focus of the meeting appears to have been blocking of pornography. Further on you can see that pornography viewing in India is being linked to increase of rape, sexual harassment of women etc, and a common argument that was reiterated throughout the meeting was that pornography was against Indian sensibilities and culture and that it needed to be blocked at the source level itself.

In fact, the Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the meeting “the matter is to be viewed in the context of Indian culture and moral obligation towards society.”

He also said that “NGOs will have to play a lead role and work together with Government in creating awareness & education for sensitizing ill effects of the subject matter.”

Evidently the government is taking its role of monitoring the Internet seriously as the Medianama report points out the “Ministry of I&B has set up National Media Centre to monitor contents of various websites on the Internet on 24 x 7 basis.”

The meeting also looked at how the government could ensure the blocking of pornography. Based on the minutes of the meeting, it was suggested that content blocks would not be effective in India since the sites are hosted outside and firewalls are often bypassed via proxy servers. Rajesh Chharia of ISPAI proposed that India would need a list of blacklisted pornography sites by autonomous bodies / NGOs may be required

The Medianama report also points out that Subho Ray of IAMAI suggested “filtering of pornographic content at the level of cable landing stations before such content reaches ISPs” as well as hotline to report “objectionable sites.” The report says that Ray clarified that “the filtration of content was not possible at an ISP level, and more consumption of data is taking place on mobile devices, so the COAI (telecom industry organization) should have been a part of the meeting,”

It was also pointed out during the meeting that “unintended consequences of filtering of legitimate traffic need to be taken into account when blocking is carried out.”

Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary Anil Goswami also pointed out that MHA and CERT-In are working together to block websites containing objectionable contents having the potential to create communal violence and law and order problem. It was also discussed that software for safe-browsing should be distributed for home use so that parents can install it on computers and ensure safe browsing at home. Interestingly only at one point was the issue raised that in India it is legal to watch and possess pornography, and that the only thing is illegal is the distribution.

While the ministry is right to treat the issue of child pornography seriously, the idea of a web filter that is being proposed increases fear that it won’t just be restricted to pornography. Of course, there’s question on what would be considered pornography. Will cartoons and gifs, which are often NSFW but not necessarily porn, get banned, even though it would be a stretch to call them pornography? Would nude photos get banned as well? What about lingerie ads? The list of what could constitute as pornography or anti-Indian culture is endless.

While the “cultural” sensibility argument dominated the course of the meeting, very little evidence was given to discuss the linking of pornography to the rise of crimes against women. It is clear from reading of the minutes that more than concern for safety of women, the government of India was looking at the “yeh Indian culture ke khilaaf hai” angle to justify the use of web filters to block pornography.

Then where the social media issue is concerned, the meeting doesn’t shed much light on how the content screening will take place. Will criticism of the government’s policies also come under this web-filtration? We have no details on the specifics. And let's not forget India is the leader when it comes to blocking content on Facebook.

As the Medianama piece rightly points out the ambiguity of what could end up getting filtered is what makes this scary. Additionally the whole 'pornography is against Indian culture' idea is also worrying because it shows that the government is going along with a rigid definition of what is presumed as the “correct” Indian culture.

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