clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Amid a porn blocking controversy, India ignores its real internet problems

Associated Press

Last weekend, several internet users in India discovered that they could no longer access popular porn websites. Confusion reigned initially, with users in different cities and across various ISPs giving conflicting reports about the extent of the "outage." By Monday morning, however, it became clear that the Indian government had issued an order late last Friday to all ISPs calling for "disablement" of 857 sites. The fact that some could still access the websites was later put down to the timing of the order, as many ISPs didn’t have the necessary staff to implement the ban over the weekend.

Viewing porn isn’t illegal in India, so you can imagine that the news of the ban invoked sharp criticism from users and activists alike. A copy of the order leaked soon enough, and a closer inspection of the list of blocked websites revealed that popular humor site 9gag and some torrent sites like KickassTorrents were also caught in the crossfire, further fueling the outrage.

The news of the ban invoked sharp criticism from users and activists alike

The uproar prompted the government to offer an explanation, with the Telecom and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad saying, "The instant action is basically in obedience to the observation of the Supreme Court where the court asked the department to take action on the list of alleged porn sites provided by the petitioner."

That’s a reference to a petition pending before the highest court in the land, one that seeks to block access to porn sites in India. The country’s chief justice, H.L. Dattu, had refused to issue an interim order banning all porn sites citing right to personal liberty.

During the course of the same case, the court had asked the government what action had been taken to block child porn websites, and it seems last week’s order is an overly broad reaction to that. After the backlash, the government first removed the likes of 9gag from the block list and later issued a clarification to the original order, saying the ISPs "are free not to disable any of the 857 URLs which do not have child pornography." Understandably, the ISPs want to play no role in this, and want government to decide which URLs should be (or stay) banned.

The impracticalities of ISPs investing time and effort in what constitutes child porn aside, businesses in India will always err on the side of caution when it comes to deciding what classifies as "objectionable" — this is a country where broadcasters voluntarily censor out the most harmless content because if someone takes offense to something, the penalties can be harsh. In 2014, for example, Comedy Central was asked to go off air for six days after a viewer complained about two shows — Stand Up Club and Popcorn — that aired on the channel in 2012.

The government apparently has no will to enforce its own order

With that in mind, it’s understandable why the ISPs are saying that until the government explicitly says otherwise, all URLs in that order will stay blocked. The ground reality, though, is that many porn websites part of the original list are now accessible across various ISPs, something no one will officially admit. This also shows that the government apparently has no will to enforce its own order.

Simultaneously, the Indian government is now talking about setting up an ombudsman for online content, effectively a top cop for the internet in India. In the past, the government has also talked about the "evil impact" of social media, and the need to regulate what’s being said on Twitter and Facebook. For citizens, all this sounds a little bit too familiar to how the internet operates in neighboring China.

There’s no denying the fact that child porn should be banned, but banning all porn websites without any directive from a court is both overzealous and an infringement on the right to personal liberty, as the chief justice has himself said. If the government’s really worried about internet users in India, there are plenty of other legitimate issues that need to be urgently addressed.

For instance, India is currently embroiled in a net neutrality debate that closely mirrors the one that has gripped the United States for the past several years. A government-appointed panel recently shared its recommendations on the subject, which include a provision that "domestic" VoIP calls — calls made via apps like Skype and WhatsApp where both parties are in India — should be regulated similarly to calls made from a mobile phone. Telcos in India have been complaining about loss of revenue — real or otherwise — resulting from customers preferring these apps over traditional calls, and it seems the regulator has dropped the ball on this subject. There are other issues with the recommendations as well, and one hopes that consumer-friendly policies prevail in the end, as they did in the US.

India is currently embroiled in a net neutrality debate

Second, India is saddled with a ridiculous, obsolete definition of high-speed internet. It’s 2015, yet a 512kbps line passes off as "broadband" here. Some ISPs have upped the minimum to 2Mbps, but others refuse because there’s no regulatory stick forcing them to follow suit. For all the talk of digital revolution in the country, India has the second-lowest average internet speeds in Asia-Pacific, thanks in part to outdated regulation. And even with reasonable speeds, the FUP (Fair Usage Policy) menace lets ISPs advertise connections at certain speeds, only to throttle them down to a meager 512kbps as soon as the user exceeds a typically low quota.

But for now, the focus is entirely on the porn debate, which shows no signs of letting up. "A survey of the law of obscenity not only displays a palpable tension between access and distribution, but also between individual practice and social norms," writes Apar Gupta, a lawyer practicing in Delhi, India. "Such hypocrisy rises as a national discussion on pornography is avoided. But a discussion is urgent and it must question the very basis for criminalizing obscenity and its continued utility."

Kunal Dua is the Editorial Head at NDTV Gadgets, the largest India-based technology news website with over 19 million monthly unique readers around the globe.