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      Rubbing Out Internet Porn Won't Be Easy for the Indian Government

      Rubbing Out Internet Porn Won't Be Easy for the Indian Government Rubbing Out Internet Porn Won't Be Easy for the Indian Government Rubbing Out Internet Porn Won't Be Easy for the Indian Government
      Photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru

      Asia & Pacific

      Rubbing Out Internet Porn Won't Be Easy for the Indian Government

      By Purvi Thacker

      An Indian housewife clad scantily in a sari boasts about her raunchy exploits and sexual escapades with her friends. She invites her neighbor to share the shower with her, and goes on to have steamy trysts with a gardener, a grocery vendor, and the cable guy.

      Though this scenario might sound like an Indian remake of Desperate Housewives, Savita Bhabhi is the heroine of an online Indian comic strip conceived along the lines of Japanese manga, full of titillating content and explicit illustrations. Launched in 2008 and banned by the Indian government the following year, the strip soon resurfaced under a different domain name and continues to operate and be widely accessible to anyone browsing the net.

      After the web comic was banned, amused observers took to identifying Savita Bhabhi as India's first internet porn star.

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      You might think the country that produced the Kama Sutra would be a little less conservative about sexuality, particularly as it concerns an adult-themed cartoon, but officials are at it again. Following the Indian Supreme Court's admission last year of a public interest litigation filing that sought a blanket ban on online pornography, the government has been cracking down on obscene content and preparing an attempt to block internet porn nationwide.

      While this has prompted concern over freedom of expression and censorship, whether the government's gambit is even technologically feasible remains an open question.

      'In places like Europe and America, photos of people posing with low-cut jeans exposing their crack is okay. But in India, something like this may be marked as obscene.'

      Telecom and IT Minister Ravi Shankar recently remarked to the Economic Times that, although porn is legal in some countries, the issue should be seen in the "context of Indian culture and moral obligation towards society." Indian law prohibits the publication or transmission of "obscene" content. The disapproving Indian government is therefore now working closely with the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee, and various internet service providers (ISPs) to tackle online smut.

      "One needs to question with what prism you're looking at content that is considered obscene, as cyberspace is a very dense area and the term is loosely defined," Vivek Sheorey, the CEO of Sheorey Digital Systems, an Indian tech company, told VICE News. He noted the difficulty of consistently determining what material should be considered offensive, especially as it concerns the categorizing and flagging of websites. "In places like Europe and America, photos of people posing with low-cut jeans exposing their crack is okay. But in India, something like this may be marked as obscene."

      Legal experts whom VICE News consulted echoed this point.

      "There is a grey area between pornography and eroticism, and what is considered lascivious in nature," said Pavan Duggal, an Indian Supreme Court advocate who specializes in cyberlaw. But while Indian law specifically punishes the publication, creation, browsing, downloading, or exchanging of any depiction of children in an "obscene or indecent or sexually explicit manner," Duggal believes that there is still some legal ambiguity about the blacklisting of other material.

      "The trouble lies in the identification," he noted.

      Because many ISPs in India are small businesses that simply work to provide internet access to customers and have no authority to create, disseminate, or promote online content, it is hard for them to identify and monitor websites suspected of obscenity.

      "Who will be the arbiter of whether something is pornographic or not? All kinds of material, from the Indian movie Fire to Wendy Doniger's book on the Hindus, could end up classified as pornographic depending on who is doing the classification," Chinmayi Arun, research director of the Center for Communication Governance at National Law University in Delhi, told VICE News. "This is a very real concern that ought to have been taken into account."

      'The present government's decision to ban adult porn in India should not be a knee-jerk one.'

      Another layer of difficulty is posed by the Indian government's request that ISPs upgrade their infrastructure and "blueprint" a porn-blocking system. For this reason, the government is having the Internet and Mobile Association of India step in and curate a list of all pornographic websites that are currently accessible in India, especially those dealing with child pornography. This master list will then be provided to ISPs, who will be legally bound to enact the mass blocking while somehow ensuring that the effort does not adversely affect internet access.

      But the challenges from a technical standpoint don't end there.

      "Blocking pornographic websites is an exercise in futility from the word go," Duggal said. "Given the intrinsic nature of the architecture of the internet, you cannot possibly block all sites, as there are so many indirect ways of circumventing blocked websites using proxies and VPNs [virtual private networks]."

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      Further complicating the government's efforts is the fact that these pornographic sites are overwhelmingly hosted outside of India's territory. Identifying and policing those distant servers is practically impossible, both technically and legally.

      "If a pornographic website is being operated or hosted from overseas, then this becomes a jurisdiction issue with legal constraints," Sheorey explained, pointing out that because there is no internationally accepted policy covering the issue of pornography across the world, many Western countries have also failed to curtail web porn.

      Milind Deora, a former Indian minister of telecom and IT, told VICE News that officials should base their course of action on the input of social scientists and experts.

      "The present government's decision to ban adult porn in India should not be a knee-jerk one," he said.

      Considering the many technical limitations facing the selective blocking of sites, as well as the danger posed to civil liberties by regulatory overreach, it would seem natural for the government to focus its resources on the more pressing concern of child pornography rather than pursue the quixotic task of imposing an all-encompassing porn prohibition.

      "Politicians, bureaucrats, and judges must show restraint and not partake in moral policing," Deora stated. "However, child porn is undeniably undesirable, and the government must find ways of creating institutional and legal capacity to block it and enforce its ban."

      Follow Purvi Thacker on Twitter: @purvi21

      Photo via Flickr

      Topics: asia & pacific, india, politics, pornography, porn, internet, ban, isps, narendra modi

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