India Blocks 800+ Porn Websites Then Reverses Decision

India’s government has blocked more than 800 porn websites in the first crackdown of its kind in the country, only to lift the ban days later because of widespread public outrage.

Various news sources in India began reporting on the story last Saturday when ISPs were found to have blocked numerous websites deemed offensive because of sexualized images and/or videos.

According to NN Kaul, a spokesman at the department of telecommunications, the crackdown was implemented to prevent “Free and open access to porn websites…[which] has been brought under check,” and to stop pornography becoming “a social nuisance”.

The ban

On 17 July, the Indian government released a 17-page order, which listed 857 pornographic sites deemed offensive on the grounds of morality and decency. The list was given to ISPs who were pressured to block user access. The document was later leaked by civil rights activists.

Many opponents of the ban argued that the list contained numerous sites that did not pose a serious threat to viewers, including several animation sites, comic strips, blogs, even dating company websites.

What’s more, several high-profile figures in India expressed concern in reaction to the ban, which fuelled a nationwide debate about online censorship and civil liberties. Best-selling author 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.”

Other critics included Pranesh Prakash from the Centre for Internet and Society, an Indian thinktank, who said that “[the ban] 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,”

Prakash also added that provisions do exist under current obscenity legislation for blocking individual sites, but not for imposing the widespread restrictions seen last weekend.

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.”

Many have suggested that the government had kept the blanket porn ban under wraps since it is believed to violate current government legislation.

The reversal

Following widespread public criticism, Indian authorities announced on 5 August that they will partially reverse the ban – allowing most websites with sexualized images to be accessible again, apart from those involving sexualized images of children.

On Wednesday, several Indian newspapers reported that the ban would be lifted. The information and technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, told India Today TV: “A new notification will be issued shortly. The ban will be partially withdrawn. Sites that do not promote child porn will be unbanned.”

Sexual relations in India

Access to online pornography in India is common. In a 2014 statement from the adult entertainment website Pornhub, India ranked fifth in the world in terms of daily visitors.

In a legal dispute from July 2015, the Supreme Court of India ruled against a widespread ban of pornographic material despite a case study from a lawyer who argued that online pornography promoted sex crimes in the country.

In recent years, India has struggled with crimes involving sexual violence, particularly against women, and the government has come under increasing pressure to tackle these problems at their root. An increase in instances of rape and sexual assault has led to ferocious debates about the causes of such crimes with some attributing them to the burgeoning independence of women, especially in urban areas. Others suggest that the crimes have a deeper root in India’s society, particularly because of gender inequalities that are exacerbated by the country’s caste system and its patriarchal culture. Certain conservative MPs have pointed blame at internal cultural influences, including Bollywood films and women’s clothing, as well as external western influences such as the seemingly arbitrary over-consumption of fast food.

Online censorship

India has the second-largest number of internet users behind China, though experts predict that the country will have more than 500 million users by 2017. At present there are approximately 350 million online users.

What’s more, India is the world’s largest recognized democracy, and it is predicted to be the most populous country in the world by 2025, surpassing China. In 2011, 50% of the population were under 25, which has led to a huge increase in the number of people using social networks and smartphones.

In 2011, India’s government pressured social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to censor content and to remove offensive material, while in 2012 the state faced strong criticism after it demanded that Twitter block numerous accounts because of rumours that were circulating about ethnic violence in the country.

Earlier in 2015, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the telecommunications minister, vehemently denied allegations that the government were planning to ban porn websites.

However, there have been earlier attempts by the government to block websites because of offensive or pornographic content, though none as widespread as the latest crackdown.

In other cases, Bollywood and Hollywood films are often censored, and there have been reports of government agencies pressuring directors and producers to dilute content to make films more palatable for conservative audiences.

Because of the incremental rise in data infrastructure in India, and due to growing state surveillance of online activities, the use of VPNs in India has increased in recent years, and makes a lot of sense for those who want to safeguard their browsing behavior.

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