The porn debate is hitting public consciousness (read browsers) with a vengeance. Even as the Chief Justice of India's refusal to pass an interim order banning porn made reassuring headlines, reports of porn sites being inaccessible started hitting social media.
Chief Justice of India HL Dattu had said in early July, "Such interim orders cannot be passed by this court. Somebody can come to the court and say ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room? It is a violation of Article 21 (right to personal liberty) of the Constitution.’ Yes the issue is serious and some steps need to be taken… the Centre has to take a stand... let us see what stand the Centre will take.”
There is no official stand from the government, yet several porn sites are reportedly becoming inaccessible for some users over some networks like MTNL, BSNL, Vodafone, Spectranet and ACT with users getting a blank page or a message saying "The site has been blocked as per the instructions of Competent Authority." Legally India and The Mint have independently verified, citing anonymous sources, with one and three ISPs respectively that the blocks on an unprecedented 857 websites were notified on Friday by the government and should be implemented Monday onwards.
This is problematic on several levels.
Lack of transparency in governance
The secret bans of websites are a non-transparent and undemocratic undermining of the rights of citizens of a democracy, with rules about what is allowed and what is not allowed decided and implemented in secrecy and with no opportunity for citizens to be notified or to have a dialgue on the subject. It is yet another mark of a "Pvt Ltd" government's contempt for democracy that fits in with a pattern of arbitrary restrictions imposed on people, ordinances replacing laws voted on by representatives of the people and serious and unscientific fudging of national data to create perceptions favorable to he government's image.
Violation of citizen rights
As pointed out by Chief Justice Dattu, such blocks are a violation of a citizen's right to personal liberty as enshrined in Article 21 of the constitution. That the government not only violates the rights of citizens, but does so in a manner that leaves citizens no opportunity to object is an alarming indication of authoritarian and arbitrary impositions of morality as defined by undisclosed persons.
Encouraging a culture of sexual repression
I have pointed out in another piece that a society that represses sexual expression ends up encouraging stress, frustration and aggression among citizens. Sex is a fundamental urge and a culture of taboos around sex is detrimental to self actualization and contentment among citizens.
The need to mitigate harms of certain kinds of porn without violating the freedoms of citizens
It is true that certain kinds of porn can influence people into seeing harm to another as acceptable entertainment. Rape porn, revenge porn or child porn in particular comes to mind. Porn with unusual object insertions can result in self harm as well as additional injury during rape. A person's freedom ends at another person's nose. However, there is also plenty of porn that is little more than harmless eroticism and even more that can enhance the sexual lives of people by providing them with ideas to pleasure their partners - something a sex-phobic culture of ours never allows dialogue about, even as they teach young adults about how to be a good husband or wife. Well, sex does make or break marriages very often, and perhaps regressive sex-phobic orthodox leaders can take comfort in knowing that their sacrifice may help keep the marriages they so revere, happier.
If something has the "potential for causing harm" and should be banned merely on the basis of that potential, we'd probably need to ban driving and elections altogether. They have both got way more potential to harm people than porn.
The need is to mitigate the influence of porn that can lead to potential crimes, while respecting the right of people to privately engage in whatever activity they will, as long as it harms no other. It isn't as impossible as it sounds, but it will take more effort than a lazy dismissal of citizen rights.
Can something be done to prevent harm of porn without banning it?
I think it can. Here are some suggestions.
Porn is a personal matter and not government business for the most part. Porn does play a constructive role in the sex lives/education of many people. However, there are harmful types of porn that can and should be regulated – not necessarily banned, but mandatory warnings added, etc. “The following actions are illegal in most countries” is not unreasonable to expect before rape or child porn in a country where smoking depicted in a film requires absurd disclaimers.
Ads like “single moms want sex” should not be allowed – they create an extremely dangerous perception about single moms at large – for example – ads should explicitly advertise either sex workers or sex products/services and not identities as a whole that may not be associated with a default of public sexual permissiveness.
A country the size of India has tremendous clout – if we legislate that porn depicting acts of violence or pedophilia must carry mandatory legal warnings or that extreme insertions type porn carries “don't try this at home” type warning, it helps viewers in a country with next to no dialogue on sex get a more realistic understanding of what the acts mean beyond jerking off. If we legislate that failing to provide such warnings, the site will get blocked, all sites doing business will not want to lose it to competition. It will be more effective than banning porn at large, as the availability of healthy porn and appropriate caution with violent porn will help shape public perception toward a more consensual view of sexuality as a whole.
The nation will be encouraged to have a far healthier view of sexuality if, instead of panicking over every instance of sex, we can encourage a healthy Sex Industry that educates, affirms rights of all, and protects from exploitation.