India launches crackdown on online porn
The restrictions followed a ruling from India’s telecoms ministry ordering internet service providers, including international telecoms groups operating in the country such as the UK’s Vodafone, to block 857 such sites.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government provided no public justification for the unexpected ban when it came into effect at the weekend.
However, on Monday India’s telecoms ministry said that the order, issued under India’s Information Technology Act, had been prompted by comments made by a supreme court judge during a hearing in July.
The ministry said that the restrictions were temporary and did not amount to a “blanket” ban, arguing that internet users running virtual private networks, which can be used to access blocked sites, could still view the material.
“It isn’t that they are being banned lock, stock and barrel,” the ministry said. “The justice noted that free and open access to these websites.... should be controlled, but these sites will continue to be available through the mechanism of a VPN.”
The crackdown is set to raise fresh concerns about sudden and sweeping legal restrictions in India, after the introduction of a ban on the sale of beef earlier this year in the western state of Maharashtra, a move that was supported by Mr Modi’s government.
The ruling also drew criticism from legal experts following broader concerns about a recent rise in poorly-targeted internet rules, including some restrictions on global social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Pranesh Prakash of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society think-tank questioned the basis of the ruling, describing it as a further example of a “clumsy” approach to online regulation.
“There is no proper justification that they have given for banning all porn, rather than child porn or revenge porn or something like that,” he said. “The reaction is heavy handed, and has been done under the cloak of secrecy.”
The remarks by a judge cited by India’s government as a rationale for the ban were a comment made in court rather than a legal ruling, Mr Prakash added, casting further doubt on the basis for the restrictions.
India’s mix of strict regulation and conservative public morals mean explicit sexual content is almost unheard of in mainstream media, where Bollywood films seldom featuring more than a chaste on-screen embrace.
However India’s fast-growing internet population of about 300m is now both the world’s second largest after China, and an increasingly important sources for traffic for global pornographic websites.
Pornhub, which is the world’s 66th most visited website according to ranking service Alexa, said Indians were the fourth largest national users of its content during 2014.