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NOT SAFE FOR WOMEN

India’s government thinks blocking porn will prevent rape

Porn-censorship-India
Reuters/Fayaz Kabli
It’s a slippery slope towards censorship.
This article is more than 2 years old.

There have been a lot of kooky suggestions about how India should be fighting what is seen as a “rape epidemic”. From telling women what to wear and when to go out, to reducing access to cellphones and chow mein, everyone seems to have an opinion on what ought to be done. In most cases, the suggestions are just regressive but easily dismissed. A few others, however, are genuinely insidious.

The drive to build a web filter to prohibit porn is one such measure.

A public interest litigation filed in India’s Supreme Court last year called for the government to block porn websites because “most of the offences committed against women/girls/children are fuelled by pornography”. The court then took this PIL up and told the government it would have no choice but to do something about the problem. Now, it seems like authorities are preparing to take action.

As reported by the Economic Times, India looks all set to be subject to large-scale web censorship. The government has decided to ask Internet Service Providers to take down websites hosting pornography, while also asking them to upgrade their infrastructure so that the blocking becomes more efficient. Meanwhile, it has asked the Internet and Mobile Association of India, an industry body, to prepare a list of websites that the government will then ask ISPs to block.

What is porn?

This decision was made at a meeting of the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee, where the government announced that it couldn’t simply tell the Supreme Court that filtering porn would be difficult to do, as it had tried to argue earlier. Instead, the telecom minister insisted that 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”.

Pornography, or at least the publishing and transmitting of obscene material, is illegal in India. Section 67 of the Information Technology Act actually defines this as “material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt person”, with offenders liable to a prison sentence of up to five years.

Despite this, the government has rarely taken much effort to block pornography beyond specific cases, simply because it seems impossible. A technical team set up by the Bombay High Court in 2001 to look into the issue unanimously concluded that any proposal to block websites would be unfeasible, partly because it would be hard to define what is pornographic.

“Should minors be allowed to view a National Geographic site that has images of the erotic sculptures of temples of Khajuraho?” the committee asked.  ”Should minors be allowed to see sites that deal with sex education and medical issues? Or are all these ‘unsuitable’?”

Does porn cause rape?

But the PIL that prompted this current notice from the Supreme Court wasn’t built entirely around questions of culture or decency. It suggested simply enough that the surge in crimes against women in India, which has received much coverage in the aftermath of the December 2013 gangrape, has been fuelled by porn.

“Offenders’ minds are mostly fuelled by pornography, as the sexual offender or rapist achieves his gratification, not from sexual release alone but also from the thrill of domination, control and power,” the petition claimed.

There is, however, almost no evidence to back this up. Much research has been conducted into the matter, primarily because of a regular trend by those in the media to connect rape and sexual crimes to pornography. Most studies have actually ended up suggesting an inverse relationship between the spread of porn and the incidence of rape. In other words, more porn has led to fewer sexual crimes.

“The available data about pornography consumption and rape rates in the United States seem to rule out a causal relationship, at least with pornography availability causing an increase in the incidence of rape,” write Christopher Ferguson and Richard Hartley, professors of psychology and criminal justice, in a paper on the issue in the journal, Aggression and Violent Behaviour. “Official statistics might provide evidence for the reverse effect; the increasing availability of pornography appears to be associated with a decline in rape.”

Although this theory that porn might actually be responsible for a reduction in rape rates might only be a coincidence as a result of the overall decline in crime statistics, it lays to rest the theory that sexual assaults are caused by pornography. Most of the research in this area have similar conclusions, finding little evidence to suggest a causal link between the two.

Slipping down the censorship slope

Not only is the very basis of this move problematic, it also opens the door to other dangers. Chief among them is an overzealous political class that has tasted the power of internet censorship. As pointed out by Medianama, the discussion that was supposed to only look at questions of pornography, veered off into looking at the “misuse of social media for disturbing communal harmony”. The minutes of the meeting actually saw the telecom minister call on the home ministry to look into this issue and “evolve steps to prevent misuse”.

This means that a filtering system ostensibly being built to block porn as a way of preventing rape will end up being used to shut down websites that the government believes has “objectionable content”.

As anyone paying attention to the attacks on free speech India has dealt with in recent times and the increase of competitive intolerance, “objectionable” could mean just about anything. And despite this government’s commitment to transparency, it is unlikely that authorities will feel the need to explain why websites have been taken down, let alone give site owners a chance to make their case.

Considering the problems that this poses, it almost seems as if the people who were calling for the banning of jeans and chow mein might be more tolerable.

This post originally appeared at Scroll.

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