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BRP Bhaskar: Flip-flops also have their uses
August 11, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Acting stealthily and in haste and covering up quietly at leisure has become a disconcertingly familiar feature of the Narendra Modi administration. The latest example is the failed crackdown on internet pornography.

Towards the end of July, the Department of Telecommunications handed over to internet service providers a 17-page letter which contained a list of 857 allegedly pornographic websites and “advised” them to “control free and open access” to them in the interests of morality and decency.

The ISPs, knowing they are vulnerable, treated the advice as a command and started blocking the sites even as they pleaded they had limitations since the sites were hosted by servers based outside the country.

Neither the government nor the ISPs announced the imposition of censorship. But it did not remain a secret. Indians are reportedly the fourth largest consumers of internet porn, after the USA, the UK and Canada, and those who found they could no longer access these sites immediately raised a hue and cry in the social networks. Some Bollywood celebrities and well-known Indian writers in English backed them.

There was more humour than anger in their criticism. Alluding to other restrictions imposed by Bharatiya Janata Party governments, like the Maharashtra ban on beef, some critics circulated tongue-in-cheek suggestions with the hashtag #NextBanIdea.

Many pointed out that Kamasutra, the ancient treatise on sex, and the erotic temple sculptures of Khajuraho were Hindu India’s contributions. There was also a more pointed attempt to embarrass the BJP by reminding the party that some of its legislators were caught on television camera while they watched pornography inside a State Assembly.

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, noted that the directive to block 857 sites was the largest single order of its kind, and said, “We need to do away with unaccountable, non-transparent censorship.”

Recognising the futility of the exercise, the government soon started backtracking. First, it tried to explain away the action as a temporary measure, taken in the light of a Supreme Court directive. Later, Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced a partial withdrawal of the ban. “Sites that do not promote child porn will be unbanned,” he said.

The unbanning exercise was as opaque as the ban. It is now presumably the responsibility of the Indian ISPs to identify child porn sites and bar access to them. In this context, Pranesh Prakash raised a tricky question: wouldn’t ISP personnel viewing child porn before blocking it be culpable under Section 67B of the Information Technology Act?

It appears the list of porn sites which the Department of Telecommunications provided to the ISPs was prepared not by the government but by an Indore lawyer, Kamlesh Vaswani. He had submitted it to the Supreme Court along with a petition seeking an order banning them.

While considering the matter, the court said it was for the government to take a call, and wondered why it was not blocking even child porn sites. This did not amount to a directive to the government.

If the observation about the government’s role gave the impression that the court was inclined to accept the petitioner’s demand, there were also remarks which conveyed quite the opposite.

Declining the petitioner’s plea for an interim order, Chief Justice HL Dattu, who is presiding over the bench, said, “Such interim orders cannot be passed by this court. Somebody can come to the court and say, ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room. It is a violation of Article 21 (right to liberty) of the Constitution.’ Yes, the issue is serious and some steps need to be taken.”

The court then asked the Home Ministry to file within four weeks an affidavit outlining the government’s stand. In the circumstances, the prudent course was for the government to present its views before the court and await its verdict.

As it happened, the government’s flip-flop gave an immediate push to internet pornography. A website reported that Google Trends recorded a jump in search for porn sites by Indians. Keyword search using the name of an Indo-Canadian porn star registered an increase of 2050 per cent.

It is difficult to believe that the government could not imagine that its blanket porn ban order will not pass muster. It may have gone ahead with the limited purpose of diverting people’s attention from developments that reflect poorly on its performance. After all, flip-flops also have their uses.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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