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Why India is cracking down on Internet pornography

The Indian government has blocked more than 800 websites in a move that has renewed nationwide debate around freedom of speech.

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    A stray dog sleeps outside as an Indian man use the internet at a cyber cafe in Allahabad, India, Monday, Aug.3, 2015. India has ordered Internet service providers to block access to more than 850 adult websites in what the government has described as a way to protect social decency.
    Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo
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India has attempted to stamp out Internet pornography – at least for a while.

The government has asked Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to block more than 800 pornographic websites as part of an effort to prevent them from “spreading anti-social activities,” The Hindustan Times reports. The decision, which ISPs enacted Sunday, has renewed debate around freedom of speech and censorship in India, the world’s largest democracy.

“Free and open access to porn websites has been brought under check,” N.N. Kaul, a department of telecommunications spokesman, told Reuters. “We don't want them to become a social nuisance.”

In a 17-page order issued to ISPs July 31, the government ordered 857 websites to be blocked “on grounds of morality and decency” under the 2008 Information Technology Act.

The ban comes after the Indian Supreme Court last month ruled against the outright prohibition of Internet porn, HuffPost India reports. The court, responding to a petition arguing that porn access fueled crimes against women, said such a ban would violate constitutionally protected personal freedoms – but acknowledged the need for greater control over porn websites especially in terms of children’s access to them. The case is still ongoing.

Over the weekend, Internet users across India reported that some adult websites had been replaced with blank white pages, according to The Verge. Others reported seeing a government message saying the site had been blocked.

Government officials have said that they enacted this weekend’s porn ban to prevent children from accessing the sites. “Adults will still be able to access the sites using virtual private networks (VPNs) or proxy servers,” the BBC reports.

“There is no total ban. This was done in the backdrop of Supreme Court's observation on children having free access to porn sites. The idea is also to protect India's cultural fabric. This will not prevent adults from visiting porn sites,” a senior official who declined to be named told the network.

“It is a temporary arrangement” until the government can come up with a long-term control policy, he added.

The ban sparked outrage from social media users, who were quick to start the hashtag #PornBan on Twitter.

“There is no proper justification that [the government has] given for banning all porn, rather than child porn or revenge porn or something like that,” Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, told The Financial Times. “The reaction is heavy handed, and has been done under the cloak of secrecy.”

It’s not the first time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has been accused of curbing freedom of speech. In February, the government pushed for greater Internet restrictions and opposed the removal of a provision of the Information Technology Act that called for imprisoning people who sent “offensive” messages by computer or cellphone.

The Supreme Court later struck down the provision, known as Section 66A, in a decision that advocates lauded as a victory for free speech, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

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