Indian experts doubt government ban on porn sites will be effective

The Indian government directed service providers to block 240 websites but doubts have surfaced over the legality of such an order.

Last year, the Indian government identified more than 850 websites that provided escort services but action has been initiated only with respect to 240 such websites after a Mumbai court issued an order to ban them last week.

These sites were banned under the provision of Section 79(3)(b) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 -- as their content relate to morality and decency as given in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India -- on June 13 after a committee of experts in the Indian Home Ministry recommended action against them.

But experts doubt whether the government can proscribe them in view of a lack of adequate legislation. Jaspreet Grewal, programme officer with the Centre for Internet and Society, said that though the websites offering escort services may potentially be in violation of the law, they cannot be banned under the existing provisions of the IT Act.

Even the government appears to be in a dilemma, as although it notified internet service providers to disable 857 websites on July 31, 2015, it modified the orders four days later, saying that the service providers were free "not to disable" any of the 857 sites if they did not have child pornographic content.

Following an uproar, with netizens lashing out at the government on the social media platforms such as Reddit and Twitter saying that it was trying to impose censorship and also curb freedom of expression, the government decided to rescind its July 31 directives

According to a report in Delhi-based English daily Hindustan Times, Indian Minister for Communication and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad rejected that the present government was a Talibani government, as being said by some of the critics. "Our government supports free media, respects communication on social media, and has respected freedom of communication always," he said.

The minister, while making a statement in Parliament last month, admitted that it was a significant challenge to filter the sites with pornographic content as most of the pornographic sites were hosted outside the country, where viewing pornography is legal.

"These websites keep on changing the names, domain addresses, and hosting platforms from time to time, making it difficult to filter or block such websites using technical tools available in the market," he added.

The minister also said that the government was asking the service providers regularly to upgrade their infrastructure and technology to effectively address the shortcomings with regard to identifying and blocking encrypted websites. "The government is also in regular touch with social networking sites, having their offices in India, to disable objectionable contents at the source from their websites," he added.

However, the government seems to be treading cautiously and an indication to this effect was given by a senior official in the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY). "Though a debate is taking place for a long time, the government is now taking a calibrated approach," DeitY Joint Secretary Rajiv Bansal said at an ICANN event held in Delhi on Thursday.

He also felt that banning the websites was not a solution as new sites were sprouting to replace the blocked ones.