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India wants to ban porn—will it work?

INDIAINTERNET
Pavitra Gulati | The Washington Post | Getty Images

India is trying to block access to online pornography in a move that has triggered fears over digital freedoms in the world's largest democracy.

Senior government officials held a meeting in September to discuss how web filters can be used on websites containing adult content, according to local media reports published on Friday.

"When any country blocks porn, it is a form of internet censorship," said Pawan Duggal, a lawyer specializing in Indian cyber law at Pawan Duggal Associates Advocates. "This specific issue is problematic because India doesn't have a universal definition of porn. Indian cyber law doesn't use the word pornography."

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India's parliament passed its first cyber act in 2000, which allows governments to intercept, monitor and block "lascivious" electronic content on the Internet. Thus, the question of what qualifies as pornographic material remains a grey area for officials and could result in the censorship of non-porographic content.

"While some activists have criticized this current move as going beyond the previous episodes of censorship, in my opinion, the larger concern that remains unaddressed is the potential opportunities that it raises for the abuse of power," said Sameer Patil, associate national security fellow at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House.

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In earlier instances of internet censorship, people were detained by police and questioned for posting objectionable political content on social media platforms, Patil said.

A look at India's recent track record also gives cause for concern over increasing government regulation of online content. The country asked Facebook to remove nearly 5,000 pieces of content in the second half of 2013 - the most out of any nation - according to a transparency report from the social media giant earlier this year. India also saw the largest decline in Internet freedom out of 60 countries in the first half of 2013, a report from U.S. watchdog organization Freedom House showed.

Why now?

The decision to block online porn is part of the government's raft of measures to tackle sexual violence against women, with the Ministry of Home Affairs stating that pornographic sites "have the potential to create communal violence."

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India, home to the ancient Kamasutra text, is repeatedly ranked as one of the worst places for females amid frequent occurrences of rape, assault and street harassment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sworn zero tolerance for violence against women as the country's international reputation comes under severe damage following the deadly gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012.

"The larger issue of respecting cultural values of the country and sentiments of the Indian society need to be considered and all possible ways and means may have to be devised in this context [of a web filter]," said Telecom and Information Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, reportedly in attendance during the September meeting.

Implementing a filter

Media reports say ministers will ask all Internet service providers (ISPs) to block pornography sites, a daunting mission given the sheer number of them floating online. The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) puts the figure at 40 million, the majority of which are located outside India. Experts are skeptical that officials lack the capability to strictly enforce the censorship.

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"Despite India's IT sector making tremendous progress, authorities remain ill-equipped to enforce the ban, particularly in terms of digital forensics and also the numerous websites that the banned ones may spawn," said Gateway House's Patil.

Moreover, access to blocked portals will still be possible, Duggal noted, as people will turn to a variety of indirect methods, including proxy servers, to bypass filters. One example of this is the torrent website 'The Pirate Bay,' which is banned on over 20 countries but remains accessible via multiple proxy servers.

So, will India embrace a Chinese-style censorship police to enforce the ban? The Communist country employs one of the world's most rigorous content-filtering Internet systems, including the 'Great Firewall of China,' a large-scale surveillance network that can block websites containing taboo keywords such as Tiananmen, Tibet or Falun Gong.

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"As a whole, India is a very systemic country, it's not like anything cannot be blocked," Duggal told CNBC. "The chances of a Chinese experiment being replicated in India are extremely low given our robust constitution."