The recent move by the Indian government to block certain sites linked to internet pornography was one which evoked massive debates across various channels. For the left leaning intelligentsia, who generally view the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP as an affront to their ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ social consensus, the ban displayed yet another way in which the BJP would infringe on the individual freedoms of Indian citizens.
While the truth does remain that in the modern age of torrent downloads, Virtual Private Networks and free proxies, it is almost impossible to restrict access completely to anything over the internet, the critics of the ban must contend with some uncomfortable truths on the matter.
First, the internet ban was not enforced due to the whims and fancies of any minister and politician. The ban was a direct result of a Supreme Court observation based on a petition filed by a private citizen seeking action on a list of porn websites he had provided. The rationale and motives behind the actions of both petitioner and the Court may fall under the range of debate but it would be unbelievably adolescent for anyone to suggest that this entire legal process was planned and orchestrated by the BJP for whatever reason.
Second, the moral implications of accessing pornography cannot be ignored however inconvenient it may be. Those vociferously advocating the unfiltered access of porn tend to portray pornography as just a consensual between two adult individuals. The harsh truth is that this is almost never the case. Most individuals –particularly women – participating in pornographic entertainment are long standing victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. The entry of individuals into the porn industry is rarely voluntary and is almost always the result of coercion, blackmail and desperation. The line between a woman forced into prostitution and one forced into pornographic entertainment is very thin – perhaps non-existent. Surely, those who rant and rage against the objectification of women, sexual abuse and exploitation realize that the widespread distribution and access of pornography only serve to embellish an exploitative and misogynistic industry.
Individual freedoms should end when it causes harm to others.
And it is not as though the moral implications of pornography are not lost on the society at large. A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in the USA (the assumed beacon of free society for India’s intelligentsia) revealed that only 29% of Americans thought that watching porn is ‘morally acceptable’. More surprisingly, 65% of American men felt it to be immoral to watch pornography.
Even the most vociferous Indian voices on the subject took great pains to convey that while they do not support the distribution of porn themselves, they do not believe that it is right for the government to restrict access. A bit like saying that while one does not take narcotics themselves, they should be made freely available to anyone who would want to take them.
And third, India is not the only country in the world where access to pornography is regulated.
The United States has built their regulations of pornography around the Miller test – leaving the burden of defining the legality of pornographic material to local communities, creating a system where pornography related restrictions vary from state to state, with numerous individual states indicating that the creation and distribution of adult films and photography are legally listed as prostitution within their jurisdiction. As we speak, US courts are studying the applicability of the Miller test across the internet with arguments being made that if such an application were to occur, the opinion of the most conservative community of the USA would be binding on the entire country – hardly the standards that have been applied by the by the allegedly ‘harsher’, Indian government.
In various times of history, the United States has attempted to legislate the control of pornographic material – the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 and Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000 being the more prominent examples. While some of these acts have been struck down by the courts due to First Amendment concerns, others have been ruled to be constitutional and are in effect. Additionally, the production of all sexually explicit materials in the USA is regulated under 18 U.S.C. 2257, which can only be termed as a legal sword notoriously hanging over the porn industry.
The US is not alone among modern nations in their restriction of pornography. In the UK, the sale or distribution of hardcore pornography through any channel was prohibited until as late as 2002. From January 2009, it has been illegal to possess adult pornography that falls under the Government’s classification of “extreme pornography” within the United Kingdom. The UK also has the Internet Watch Foundation –started by internet service providers (ISPs) to track pornographic content that is in violation of British law and report it to the police. Furthermore, the UK government ordered all ISPs to have web-filter systems running by the end of 2007 which would block sites deemed as ‘criminally obscene’.
As recent as 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron announced mechanisms to ensure that internet pornography would be filtered by default in the UK. As per the plans, by the end of 2014, the access of internet porn was deemed to be blocked unless subscribers specifically ‘opt out’ by contacting their ISPs.
Similar restrictions exist in countries like Australia, Germany and many others in the East. This is of course not counting the host of nations where all forms of pornography are simply illegal such as most Middle-Eastern countries along with China.
In sum total, it is not very difficult to see that in terms of restricting access to pornography, the difference between the stand of the India government and most liberal, democracies of the world are more in terms of nuance rather than totally diversion.
The leftist, cosmopolitan ranting around the blocking of selected porn sites by the government certainly had no room for considered analysis.
One of the expected side-effects of the ascent of Narendra Modi to India’s premiership has been the sharp divergence in how the new Government and its’ ideological mentors view India when compared to the leftist consensus that existed prior to May 2014. The broad national acceptance of the vision presented by Narendra Modi and the BJP, has been a bitter pill for his critics to swallow.
While the pre-election cries and howls of the New Delhi intelligentsia of the ‘Idea of India’ being under attack from Modi and the BJP have been suitably silenced by the Prime Minister, the search for a new albatross to hang around Narendra Modi’s neck continues. The non-analytical, cynical debate around the pornography restrictions is the latest in a line of manufactured controversies similar to the ones around the FTII Chairman, Church attacks etc.
The irony this time around is that it is the very same brigade of leftist activists who shed the most crocodile tears over the exploitation and abuse of women who have come out advocating for free access to one of the most sexually exploitative and misogynistic industries in the world.
This writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Twitter Handle @shankarpraful.