In India, the bustling virtual world of porn just crashed to a halt

The World
Bollywood actress Vidya Balan smiles during a news conference to promote her 2011 movie "The Dirty Picture" in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. "The Dirty Picture" is said to be based on the life of Silk Smitha, a south Indian actress who became a h

Bollywood actress Vidya Balan smiles during a news conference to promote her 2011 movie "The Dirty Picture" in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. "The Dirty Picture" is said to be based on the life of Silk Smitha, a south Indian actress who became a household name in the 1980s and 90s with her semi-nude scenes and brazen on-screen persona.

Krishnendu Halder/Reuters

Porn, not surprisingly, has always been a problem in India.

In the old days, curious and hormonal young Indians had to rely on the kindness of the neighborhood magazine seller who might run a lending library of sorts — return one magazine and get a rebate off the next one. I remember as schoolboys, we once excitedly pooled our money to rent a “blue film” from the local video library’s secret stash. Unfortunately there was a power cut at the crucial moment, the VCR’s eject button got stuck and we were stranded with contraband in the parents' VCR.

The Internet changed all that.

Porn became accessible on mobile phones. A 2014 study in Quartz said “Indians are among the most prolific consumers of internet pornography in the world, and increasing numbers of men — and women — are streaming it on their mobile phones.”  An Indo-Canadian former porn star, Sunny Leone, is India’s favorite porn star and one of the most popular porn search terms in India. She’s also now a major Bollywood star with hit songs like Baby Doll in a more PG-rated incarnation.

This week the bustling virtual world of XXX came to a crashing halt.

The ruling government issued a notice to Internet Service Providers asking them to block access to some 857 porn sites.

It turned out that an anti-porn crusader named Kamlesh Vaswani had petitioned the Indian Supreme Court to make watching pornography illegal. According to the New York Times, Vaswani thinks porn is worse than Hitler, AIDS, cancer and a nuclear holocaust.He was spurred to action by revelations that the men convicted in a grisly gang-rape in a Delhi bus in 2013 had been drinking and watching porn before they embarked on their rampage. The Supreme Court had turned down his request saying it would infringe the right to personal liberty. But a highly placed lawyer in the government decided to carry Vaswani’s  mission forward.

The reaction was swift and mocking.

The Indian prime minister had swept to power promising 'Acchey Din' or Good Days. Twitterati joked his government was now robbing Indians of “Good Nights.” The list of 857 was found to contain websites that were not pornographic at all, including a French newspaper. Media published articles about how easy it was to get around a porn ban in an age of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), mirror sites and downloading via Bit-Torrent, not to mention the fact that the 857 sites were a drop in the bucket of all online porn. Even the very ministry that had demanded the “immoral and indecent” sites be blocked undermined itself by protesting “It isn’t true that they are being banned lock, stock and barrel… these sites will continue to be accessible through the mechanism of a VPN.”

In effect, in its hasty zeal to scrub the Internet, all the government had achieved was ensure Indians learned about way more porn sites than they had known before this hullabaloo.

Eventually faced with withering mockery, the government did a sort of U-turn after what’s being dubbed the “one-night stand-off.” Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for communications, announced that Internet Service Providers are free to disable any of the 857 URLs that do not contain child pornography. This has pushed the ball into the service providers' court. “Can an (ISP) be expected to watch each and every video, and determine whether someone in the porn video is above or below the age of 18?” asks the digital business site MediaNama.

Most of the offending sites still remain offline. Whether productivity will go up in India next week or plummet as Indians try to figure out VPNs and proxies, like their neighbors in Pakistan, is anyone’s guess.

And if all else fails, the trusty old neighborhood magazine-wallah might be making a comeback.