Home >Politics >Policy >Before porn ban, India govt cracked down on underground online marketplaces
Last month’s ban on websites hosting pornography attracted a barrage of criticism. Photo: iStockphoto
Last month’s ban on websites hosting pornography attracted a barrage of criticism. Photo: iStockphoto

Before porn ban, India govt cracked down on underground online marketplaces

Telecom dept made a secret clampdown on covert online marketplaces hawking illicit drugs, weapons and torture videos

New Delhi: More than a month before the telecom department asked India’s Internet service providers (ISPs) to disable 857 mostly pornographic websites, it made a secret clampdown on covert online marketplaces hawking illicit drugs, weapons and torture videos, among others.

In a 12 June order, the government asked operators to block access to eight URLs leading to marketplaces Silk Road, Agora and Abraxas. These marketplaces exist in the so-called dark web, meaning their IP addresses and the identity of their owners cannot be traced, nor can they be discovered through online searches. They trade in crypto-currency Bitcoin, out of sight of the formal financial system.

“Under the powers conferred by section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and under the Information Technology (procedures and safeguards for blocking of access of information by public) Rules 2009, it has been decided to immediately block the access to the following 8 URLs," the order, a copy of which has been reviewed by Mint, said.

The 3 August order to block pornographic websites, was made under another section of the same law: Section 79 (b).

Among the three, Silk Road is the biggest, which now goes as Silkroadreloaded.i2p. Except Silk Road which uses a .i2p domain name extension, others have domain names ending with .onion, indicating they use The Onion Router (Tor), to stay virtually anonymous and untraceable on the web.

The existence of darknet sites selling illegal goods and services came to be known only two years ago when the Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down Silk Road, which facilitated trade in recreational drugs, and made over $8 million a month, the Hindustan Times reported on 10 August. Silk Road founder Ross William Ulbricht aka Dread Pirate Roberts was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Last month’s ban on websites hosting pornography attracted a barrage of criticism. The government asked operators to block 857 sites named by Indore-based advocate Kamlesh Vaswani in a public interest litigation (PIL) that is being heard in the Supreme Court which has asked for a blanket ban on pornography.

The order led to widespread condemnation and open letters to the Prime Minister. The government backtracked, asking operators to unblock those sites which do not have child pornography, essentially putting the onus on content verification on them. The ISPs, however, refused to lift the ban, asking instead for clearer instructions.

On 10 August, the government told the Supreme Court that while it intended to ban child pornography, it was not willing to act as moral police and enter people’s bedrooms to ban pornography across the board. The government also agreed to discuss with ISPs modalities of what websites required to be banned.

But the dark web poses a very different problem for the government.

“It is a completely new paradigm for governments and law enforcement agencies. Most of them are clueless about it and some countries don’t even want to acknowledge its existence. The Indian government has the power to block sites under certain conditions given in 69A of the IT Act, under which most of these sites that come under darknet qualify. Most of these sites are engaged in highly illegal activities," Pavan Dugal, cyber law expert and advocate said.

Dugal also said that just by blocking the sites, the government was not making any difference to the existence of these illicit marketplaces. “India has taken the low-hanging fruit approach to the problem as most people access these sites using tools that hide their identity and location. Simply blocking the sites is like closing your eyes and acting as if something does not exist," he added.

Darknets, however, are used for more genuine purposes as well. Political dissidents used them to send messages during the Arab Spring, to escape state surveillance.

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