Blocking of porn sites temporary, final call after SC ruling: DoT official

On Friday, the government issued an order to all Internet Service Providers in the country to bar users from accessing 857 porn websites

New Delhi: The order to block 857 porn websites issued to all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on Friday is a temporary measure, and not a ban on those websites, a senior telecom department official said on Monday.

“We have only disabled the websites and not banned them," the official said. “Once the (Supreme) Court gives its ruling on the case, then we will take a final call," the official added.

On Friday, the government, through the telecom department issued an order to all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to bar users from accessing these websites.

“Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) has requested DoT to notify intermediaries (ISPs) for disablement of the following URLs under the provision of section 79 (3)(b) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, as the content hosted on these websites relate to morality, decency as given in Article 19(2) of the constitution of India," the order, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, said.

Civil society activists criticized the move. “There is no difference between banning and disabling a website URL. The ISP can only block the URL when ordered to by the competent authority,’ said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society.

“Even a temporary infraction of a right is still an infraction. It seems to me that the government did not need to do this at all. There was no direction or ruling from the court. Even after there is a ruling, as the high courts have said, each site would have to be seen individually on a case to case basis. The government proactively banning them is against Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution (Freedom of speech and expression)," Prakash said.

On 8 July, the Supreme Court declined to pass an interim order to block pornography websites in India, saying “how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room", in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by advocate Kamlesh Vaswani to ban pornography websites in the country.

The list of websites is the one provided by Vaswani, the official said. The government has also suggested that the court appoint an ombudsman to look into the issue, the official said, without giving any more details.

Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu observed that banning the watching of pornography at home would be “a violation of article 21", the right to personal liberty. The case is being heard by the apex court and is expected to come up again on 10 August. The court also asked the government for an affidavit on the issue explaining their stand, which the home ministry has not done as yet. In the last hearing, the court gave the government a final four weeks to submit an affidavit on what it was doing to tackle child pornography among other related issues.

While there are no rules against pornography in India, the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology (IT) Act, do prohibit the production or transmission of so-called “obscene material". If convicted, a person can be imprisoned for three years under the IT Act for publishing or transmitting obscene material electronically. The government has usually relied on getting ISPs to block access to a particular website’s URL, its address on the Web. This method is usually ineffective as most such websites continue to operate by simply changing their URLs.

In past instances, like in 2012, the government gave an affidavit to the court saying that it was impractical to block all such sites, which number in the trillions, as they would just change the URL to evade such measures.

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