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A GAME OF WHACK-A-MOLE: WHY BANNING PORN SITES IN INDIA DOES NOT WORK

Irrespective of what anyone says, people in India love porn. Even though the Government of India has tried banning porn in the country in some way or another, consumers of pornographic material and films find some way or the other.

Although porn as such isn’t precisely banned in India, from time to time, the Indian Government comes up with lists of URLs of porn sites for ISPs to restrict. However, even that does not stop the avid consumers of smut from logging onto these supposedly banned sites.

We deep dive into India’s porn-consuming habits and why it is nearly impossible for the Indian Government to ban porn outright.

Breaking down the numbers: porn consumption in India
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the second most populated country in the world is also one of the top consumers of porn. India has the third largest base of porn consumers in the world, in some polls, whereas in others, we have come a close second. Back in 2019, about 89 percent of mobile phone users consumed some form of erotica on their phones, with a vast majority consuming videos. During the lockdown, India registered a 20 percent jump in consumption of pornographic content.

And for some reason, if anyone assumes that it is only men who consume smut on the internet, they would be wrong. About 30 percent of Indian porn consumers are women, per PornHub’s internal data.

The problem with the internet
Even though most Indians consume porn using their smartphones, the number of people who store porn on their phones is minimal. Most of the visual porn consumed in India is finished on the internet, thanks to the availability of dirt-cheap data plans.

While the Government’s ban on specific URLs may be a detriment, it cannot stop people from accessing those websites. Moreover, a significant portion of the porn consumed in India is the material shared using WhatsApp and Telegram.

Why does banning porn sites doesn’t work?
Let’s take China as an example to understand better why banning porn, especially in the internet age, doesn’t work. Since 1949, pornography has been prohibited in China. In 2002, the Chinese Government started cracking down on internet pornography. China is also known for having a highly censored version of the internet, so much so that people often assume that China has its separate internet.

However, China has a pretty sizeable population of porn consumers. There are various other stories globally – Afghanistan, most Middle-eastern countries, our neighbors to the east, as well as the west – a large chunk of Asia has at some point tried to ban internet-based porn.

One might think VPNs and proxy servers may be the sole reason banning a pornographic website isn’t possible. While that may be true to a certain, there are various other reasons why banning porn websites doesn’t work.

First of all, the way any government bans a website is by submitting a URL or a list of URLs to ISPs. Most websites can create a mirror site with a slightly different URL or port their content to a similar domain.

The filtering system can also be defeated if a website encrypts the traffic using HTTPS instead of HTTP because internet service providers can’t see what a user is accessing. This becomes much easier if the previous version of the website, the URL which was submitted, did not have the HTTPS bit in their URL but only HTTP instead.

The biggest problem, however, is a culmination of the previous two. The sheer number of websites and their names’ permutations are impossible to keep track of. It would be virtually impossible for any government to track all the pornographic websites or web addresses that host pornographic content.

But yes, the easiest and simplest way that porn consumers in India bypass any ban is through VPNs and proxy servers. There is also the fact that specific popular browsers come with inbuilt VPNs and proxy servers.

The blocks and content filtering can be more robust if we use keyword-based filtering or employ deep packet inspection of the internet traffic. This is something that countries like China and Saudi Arabia have tried, but it is also vastly more expensive and difficult to maintain, not to mention the fact that if someone tries to bypass the system, they still can.

Long story short, several countries have declared pornography to be illegal. However, none of them could completely ban or stop the consumption of pornography within their sovereign boundaries.

What does the law say in India?
Pornography as a subject in India is rather interesting. The selling and distribution of pornographic material are illegal in India under section 292. Similarly, child pornography is illegal and strictly prohibited across the country under section 67B of the Information Technology Act of 2000. The manufacturing, publishing, and distribution of pornography are banned in India under units 292 and 293.

However, in a case from 2015, the Supreme Court of India said that viewing porn in a private room may fall under the Constitution’s Right to Personal Liberty. The Supreme Court eventually banned pornographic websites, and the Government tried to ban over 850 popular websites. However, the Government had to rescind the ban on several websites. In 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court reinstated the Supreme Court’s prohibition after a group of 4 boys accused of rape in the state’s capital Dehradun said they were nudged into committing the crime after watching a porn movie.

What is illegal, for sure, is accessing banned websites using proxy servers and VPNs that have been excluded. Still, hardly anyone ever gets prosecuted for such a crime unless the person is charged with other significant crimes.

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