New Delhi: Twitter was abuzz on Tuesday with news about a suit in the Indian Supreme Court seeking a ban on Internet pornography and making the watching of it a non-bailable offence.
The court asked the government on Monday to respond to the public interest litigation (PIL), according to media reports. It issued notices to the ministries of home affairs, information technology and information and broadcasting, besides the Internet Service Providers Association of India on a petition seeking an anti-pornography law that was filed by advocate Vijay Panjwani, according to the reports.
Currently, there is no law against viewing pornography. The Indian Penal Code and the recent IT Act both prohibit the production and transmission of “obscene material”. The IT Act stipulates three years in jail for publishing and transmitting obscene material electronically.
If watching pornography is made illegal, this will be a wholly new rule.
Is it even technically possible?
There are two ways of blocking porn. One is by actually removing the content from the Internet. This would only be possible if the content was illegal in the country where it is being hosted. The other method, which the government has largely relied on in the past, is getting Internet service providers to block access to a particular website’s URL—its address on the web.
This was how, for example, it was possible to block porn webcomic Savitabhabhi.com in 2009; the site simply changed URLs and continued to operate. A similar method is used to track the viewing of pornography—accessing a blacklisted website would trigger an alert.
However, technologically, it’s nearly impossible to have a blanket ban of this sort in place.
Simply using a proxy server should keep the ISP knowing where you’re going on the Internet. A virtual private network (VPN)—used for remote working and data protection— also allows access to content that has been blocked by the ISP and won’t leave a trail. These are all legal (and free or inexpensive) as of now.
To ban porn and track people viewing it, the government would have to also ban proxy servers and make VPNs illegal. That would be a highly draconian move and one that’s unlikely, according to Apar Gupta, a Delhi-based lawyer working with Internet companies.
In an earlier interview with Mint, Gupta had said, “There isn’t much precedent on the matter at present, but given the technical limitations of blocks, the only feasible solutions are wide censorship, which is against the Indian Constitution.”
He added that this isn’t the first time that the courts are being asked to decide on the issue.
“There is a 2001 judgement which has a bearing on this. A PIL was filed in the Bombay high court where the petitioner said that Indian laws prohibit pornography, so the court is obligated to devise a mechanism to block porn sites in India. The court actually commissioned a study with advocates and technical experts, and the final judgement stated that the Act would constitute censorship because of unscientific filtering technology. It is simply not technologically feasible.”
How does IP blocking work?
To block content, all an ISP has to do is check the URL (website address) against a blacklist of banned sites, to decide whether the user should be accessing it. This same technology can be used to track people watching banned content as well.
Every webpage has a unique URL, which means the government could block a specific page or an entire site, depending on the amount of detail in the blacklist.
However, this doesn’t remove the content from the Internet—it’s still accessible using proxies and VPNs. Taking a website down requires legal power over its servers. IP blocking only inconveniences people, but it’s very simple to circumvent, and the tools to do so are getting easier to use and are freely available.