Swachh Internet: Why we must support Ravi Shankar Prasad in filtering internet porn

First published in Scroll.in on 9 January 2015.

I was initially opposed to the idea of India blocking all online porn, but I have changed my mind.

In 2013, a lawyer named Kamlesh Vaswani filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India demanding that all pornography on the internet should be blocked by the government of India. Vaswani argued, among other things, that seeing images of people having sex makes men want to commit rape and other crimes such as sex-trafficking.

I know many people who have not raped anyone despite watching pornography. Yet there is not much to argue here since the publication of pornography is illegal in India, even though viewing it is not. Why should the internet be allowed to get away with “publishing” porn?

The Supreme Court feels strongly about this, too. However, I was relieved when the outgoing Manmohan Singh government, in May 2014, opposed the idea in the Supreme Court. In a rare display of understanding the online medium, the government argued before the Supreme Court that en masse blocking of online porn would lead to unintended consequences, causing more harm than good. “Everything would be blocked and even good literature would be blocked and it would cause more greater harm,” the government told the court.

Easier censorship

So far in India, specific web pages are blocked, but the web is not “filtered” through keywords. Once we have web filters, all kinds of pages will get blocked. AIDS awareness websites will not pass through the filter, for instance. A central web filter also means that censorship will be easier. They could just put keywords they do not like in the filter, and all those pages will disappear from our computers. That is how China avoids any mention of “Tiananmen Square” on the internet in the country.

A country of dumb citizens such as India obviously needs a web filter. Thankfully, acche din soon came, and the new minister for communications threw such heresy out of the window. Ravi Shankar Prasad told a meeting of a committee on cyber regulation, appropriately called CRAC, “The larger issue of respecting cultural values of the country and sentiments of the Indian society need to be considered and all possible ways and means may have to be devised in this context.”

Those sculptures in Khajuraho smiled wickedly in my dream last night. One of them winked. “Articles about me might get blocked too,” she said coyly, “but I don’t care.”

Bypassing web blocks

As a result, I changed my mind. Swachh internet would be a good thing. Indians watch a lot of porn online – we even have state-by-state data for you. Globally, watching porn is one of the main things the internet is used for. Porn sites take up more internet traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter together.

With such high consumption of porn, everyone will use software to bypass all web blocking. Known as Virtual Private Networks, these softwares are widely available, free and for purchase, and are used in every country with crazy internet censorship. YouTube is blocked in Pakistan but my friends there send me YouTube links of Bollywood songs. Facebook is blocked in China, but my friend in Shanghai keeps posting her selfies all the time, garnering many likes from fellow Chinese also using VPNs.

With en masse blocking of online porn in India, the use of VPNs won’t be limited to nerds. Everyone will use VPNs, rendering all blocking pointless.

Free at last

There are some 900-odd webpages blocked in India, though who knows if it is nine lakh, because the government of India tells half-truths in these matters. These are blocked for reasons of politics, hate speech, copyright and such like. Widespread use of VPNs will render these blocks meaningless, too. The communications minister should, if he likes, block the entire internet, and make VPN companies rich. India will still watch porn.

There is even a bonus here. VPNs allow you to not only bypass blocking, but also give you online privacy. VPNs mask your IP address and come in the way of other people, such as the government and your internet service provider. If you use a public wi-fi, such as one in a coffee shop, without a VPN, your computer could be hacked into very easily. Surfing the net without a VPN is like having sex without condoms, as the AIDS literature about to be filtered out of the Indian internet will tell you.

So, by blocking online porn, the government will also inadvertently teach citizens how to protect their privacy online.

I request the powers that be to therefore lose no time in introducing web filtering to India, so that Indians can truly enjoy the free internet, without restrictions and fear.

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