The hidden threats that rise from India’s porn ban

Jayadevan PK November 14, 2018 6 min

An Indian court’s latest order which has led to the blocking of popular porn websites could drive millions of internet users in the country to use dodgy services that help them circumvent the block. It could put their cybersecurity at risk.

Indian users are one of the largest consumers of porn but a few days ago, many of their favourite websites such as PornHub, Tube8, Youporn and others were blocked as per an order of the Uttarakhand High Court. One of the ways to circumvent the porn ban is to use a VPN or a virtual private network. Normally, they aren’t used widely outside of the tech circles. But this ban could see it change.

“This (ban) could increase VPN usage,” says Anurag Bhatia, a Delhi based network researcher. Pranesh Prakash, a fellow at The Center for Internet and Society feels the same way. “There is a high likelihood of more people learning how to use circumvention technologies,” he says.

As you can see on Google Trends for India, the interest in search terms such as “VPN,” or “Free VPN” and “Proxy” started increasing sometime late October, around the same time internet service providers implemented the block.

Source: Google Trends

There are many free VPN providers. However, a majority of them tend to be malicious or prone to hacks. “If anyone is offering a free service, it needs resources. And they need something in return. If it is completely free, it doesn’t really work,” says Bhatia.

Running a VPN service is usually expensive. It costs the service provider to buy bandwidth, host websites and also at times fight legal battles for hosting sites. Even big companies like Opera have failed to do so free of cost.

Then, how are there so many free VPN providers?

As restoreprivacy.com puts it: free VPN services usually monetise by collecting user data and selling it to third parties. “So basically you are still paying for the free VPN with your private data, which is being sold for profit.” There’s good evidence to back this claim.

Delhi based network researcher Anurag Bhatia.

A study by The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which analysed 283 Android apps that provide VPN, found that three out of four VPNs use third-party tracking libraries and 82% request permissions to access sensitive resources including user accounts and text messages.

The study also found that 38% of them contain some malware presence.

VPNs could also be hacked or compromised. Take, for instance, the case of Hola, a popular VPN provider. In July, the Google Chrome extension of Hola was replaced by a phishing version that targeted users of a cryptocurrency wallet. It has also been found that Hola stole user’s bandwidth and resold it through a sister company. Many such VPN apps use dodgy methods to manipulate traffic, inject scripts or even hack users.

The short history of porn bans in India

Late last month, the department of telecom asked internet service providers to cut access to more than 800 popular porn websites.

The latest attempt at banning porn in India comes after Uttarakhand High Court in an order dated 27 September 2018 noted that internet service providers had not implemented a telecom department notification of July 2015 that asked porn sites to be blocked.

The court order, part of a hearing related to a gang rape in Dehradun, said:

There shall be a direction to all the Internet Service License Holders to punctually obey the Notification dated 31st July, 2015 and to block the publication or transmission of obscene material in any electronic form, transmitting of material containing sexually explicit act or conduct and also publishing or transmitting of material depicting children in sexually explicit act or conduct forthwith.

The telecom department had rolled back the notification back in 2015 after a public outcry. The department had said then in a memo to internet service providers that they only need to block websites that peddle child porn. The memo, according to a report in Mint, said that ISPs are “free not to disable any of the 857 URLs, as given in the list, which do not have any child pornographic content”.

It all started way back in 2013 when lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a ban on porn. Vaswani argued that most of the porn online is exploitative and consuming it increases the violent sexual behaviour in the real world.

The court asked the government to find out ways to block porn. The government formed the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee, chaired by then Telecom & IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. The plan was to curate a list of sites and filter them with the help of internet service providers. A notification was issued to block 800+ porn sites in 2015. Soon after, the ban was lifted.

There is some credence to Vaswani’s view, as much of early porn was exploitative in nature. The multi-billion dollar industry has evolved since and companies like MakeLoveNotPorn are trying to make porn more humane by taking out the violent, performative aspects out of it.

Cindy Gallop
Cindy Gallop, the founder of MakeLoveNotPorn. Gallop says she’s not “anti-porn”, her startup is quick to define itself as an internet platform that defines its identity as ‘not porn’ but ‘social sex’. Read more here.

Another prominent view, among those who are pro-porn, is that there is hardly any substantial evidence to prove that watching porn increases rape in the real world. Richa Kaul Padte points out in her book Cyber Sexy:

Several studies across the world have tried to find links between media and action, and all of them have reached the same conclusion: there is absolutely no straight line we can draw from a piece of media to a particular action…we cannot say that porn causes rape just because it’s been revealed that some rapists had hardcore on their mobile phones…data from across the world indicates that incidences of rape have been steadily declining over the past few decades– decades during which access to sexy content has been exponentially increasing.

The problems with the latest order from Uttarakhand are many. Prakash, the Center of Internet and Society fellow, points out: Justices Sharma and Tiwari of the Uttarakhand HC were “told at the bar” that students who raped a minor girl had watched porn movies. They did not collect any evidence in this regard.

Also see: How popular short video apps turn a blind eye to videos of underage girls in India

“They suo motu ordered the government to enforce a block Kamlesh Vaswani’s list of 857 websites…They did not even know that government had recalled the ban,” says Prakash. The list drawn up by Vaswani is “arbitrary” (it includes websites like collegehumor.com, kickass.to) and that the “undying case” illustrates multiple problems with how website blocking, including on grounds of copyright infringement, is approached by courts in India, he says.

Prakash questions the very basis of admitting the case into the Supreme Court as a public interest litigation. “The Supreme Court admits PILs under Article 32 of the Constitution. Art 32 is meant for redress of violations of fundamental rights. Nowhere in the petition does Kamlesh Vaswani complain that his or some groups fundamental rights are being violated,” he says.

Moreover, as Prakash points out, the ministry of information and technology does not have the powers under section 69A of the IT act to block obscenity.


               

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