When asked to write on the subject, I had a certain sense of Déjà vu. About 8 years ago, I had participated in a live TV show, around ‘midnight’, which lasted for a good 3 hours. It was the same subject of pornography on the Internet. Highlight was the audience call in, some putting forth their views and others seeking answers to questions.
I remember noticing that the very vehement ones were those opposed to it and their grouse was the fact that easy accessibility of porn was leading to moral degradation of the society at large. They were the ones who felt it was morally unacceptable and even chastised the TV Channel for helping to promote availability of porn, by airing such programs as ours and on top of it running names of pornographic websites in the backdrop of the program. Then there were the concerned ones wanting to know from the learned psychiatrist on our panel, how it effects their minds and if there was a way to dissuade them from accessing/watching porn. In addition there were the usual queries on whether it was legal/illegal to watch porn, etc. The answer from another fellow panelist, that while it was illegal to publish and distribute and showing it in a public place, it was perfectly alright to ‘watch’ it in the privacy of his /her room, brought forth a stream of vitriol from someone in the audience on how could we all be so blatant so as to suggest that pornography can be enjoyed by anyone even privately. The fellow panelist had a hard time defending his statement.
The point of recounting the above was my thought that; has anything changed from the situation above from then to now about how we react to Online Pornography. To my mind, nothing really has changed as far as the extreme reactions the subject evokes amongst us, and in the foreseeable future too nothing probably will. The reasons why I say this is that are many and I think we need to create a more informed and objective view on the matter:
First, we have to recognize the primary fact that interest in sex is built into every living thing’s DNA. In any form, it will always generate interest, curiosity, fear, like, dislike and excitement; name it and all forms of human emotions and expressions are deeply attached to the subject.
Secondly, one has to learn something from history. Expression or depiction of nudity and anything sexual in many forms is as old as mankind itself. Whether in the form of drawings, paintings, writings, storytelling, music, poetry, sculptures, engravings, pictures, films, name a medium of communication throughout history and sex finds itself pretty prominently there. From Paleolithic cave paintings onwards, all civilizations have been replete with sexual depictions in whatever form and manner they could use. My thinking is that during the older civilizations production of erotica was pretty public and possibly a widely acceptable occurrence.
Third, through the course of history, with the advent of new media (eg Printing press, etc.) it became easier to produce larger quantities of the depictions of nudity and sex. I am not certain but pretty sure that even then, there were sections of society who must have reviled the growing depiction of erotica, but there were still many who accepted it. Instances of literature, paintings, etc. being burned down have been written about in many a historical account pointing to the conflict regarding the subject.
However, from a more recent perspective, any debate on this matter ends up wily nily making a reference to Khajuraho, with one side stating that it justifies the availability of pornography (we were always doing it and publicly so what’s the big deal now, they say) and the other side says that this is a subtext of religion, spirituality and culture and hence an acceptable art form which cannot be equated to porn. (This is where the distinction between erotica and porn springs up).
To my mind they could be both right, but they are also wrong. First, if erotica depicts nudity and sexual acts, so does porn. Because sex is sculpted and painted or engraved, it has over the years gained acceptance as a ‘category of art’. However, using a still or motion film to print or show sex is generally more associated with the term ‘porn’ or pornography. I read that though the term ‘pornography’ itself is of ancient Greek origin, it came to be associated with depiction of sex in a derogatory manner, during the Victorian era. I guess it is a function of time in history and context of cultural, religious, social norms of the day which seem to determine on how the society in it’s then current state views depiction of sex as erotica (as in art form) or as pornography (defined by some nowadays as lascivious content, leading to developing a prurient interest, or aimed at arousal, etc. etc.) and hence to be reviled. Does Kamasutra or the intricate erotic miniatures from our various schools of paintings not arouse, I wonder?
Anyhow, with the advent of photography in the early 1800’s, it became possible for erotica to be mass produced, with motion picture photography, erotica in motion (I am sure the first kissing must have been termed porn and censured then – much like what happened to ‘literary’ works like Lady Chatterley’s lover) and in the 1970’s videotapes became available, making it literally a household product. Technological evolution has therefore always abated the proliferation of erotica or porn, depending on the context one sees it from.
Advent of Internet and lately the ubiquitous mobile with a camera has changed the course of erotica/porn even more, in the last 10 to 20 years or so. Every individual with a mobile and online access can be a photographer, producer, publisher, actor, etc. The result is there for all to see. Anyone and everyone now has the power on his/her fingertip to create any amount of explicit material and put it out there on the Net.
Pornography and email are generally considered the two most popular applications, which have made Internet what it is; ubiquitous. Statistics on the extent of porn on the Internet is so varied that it befuddles ones senses. Most sites will throw up data to show that anywhere from 35% to 70% of the internet is made up of porn and that nearly 47% or more searches and downloads on the internet are for porn. However, a few more respectable sources like Forbes and BBC that I looked up tend to disbelieve the huge figures and state that the extent of porn online is highly exaggerated. Both of them tend towards believing amongst other data, the research by the team of Dr. Ogi Ogas and his co-author Sai Gaddam, according to whom “14% of searches and 4% of websites are devoted to sex, (but even) then are very significant numbers, when you stop to ponder it.” Even this would translate into millions and millions of pages of explicit material online.
So, the next question is; it possible to stem the flow or contain it, no matter how much of it is out there?
One basic fundamental of Internet that everyone must remember is that, this medium of communication was designed by default to withstand any break or disruption. What it means is that if anyone tried to break or disrupt any part of communication pipe (medium/transport) and or the traffic (content/data), these would be easily re-routed and become available from another part of the pipelines. Forget breaking it, even disruption or making some content unavailable can at best be a temporary measure. It will spring up from some other place in the pipe.
So, finally to get to the question of whether it is all right for the sections of public to demand or for the government to try impose a ban on explicit adult material online?
I feel, again that there is no absolutely easy answer here. It is both a yes and no.
In principle I would say ‘No ban’ because in the larger context, as I explained throughout, availability of sexual material no matter how we categorize it will always be made and distributed and be available for consumption. There is always a demand and there will always be a supply. The more we ban something, the more surreptitious it becomes and hence even more difficult to control. And technically Indian government and the industry together cannot really go beyond ‘blocking’ (we don’t have the wherewithal and control over the Internet to kill undesirable content from its source (called takedown).
Secondly, of course, there is the issue of individual liberties and freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by our Constitution, which should not be infringed upon by the government and the test for imposition of reasonable restrictions on such freedoms, should be really very stringent but cannot certainly include curbing an adults freedom to watch content of his/her choice (whether we call it erotica or porn or whatever).
But, here’s the rub too. Even as libertarian, who believes in the individuals freedom of choice, I do believe that except for content, which is produced and consumed by consenting adults, there is still an enormous amount of depictions of behavior, which really is deviant, violent, forced, exploitative, coercive, torturous, bestiality and such involving abuse of women and children and other vulnerable people and the like. These are definitely and unambiguously outright criminal acts or a result of some criminality or the other, which cannot have any room for social, cultural or legal justification. These need to be targeted for takedowns constantly, even if it looks like a losing battle. It is a difficult terrain to navigate given it’s vastness but it must be done.
My suggestion is that the government needs to relook at the way it looks at and goes about trying to ban or block ‘adult content’. As I said earlier, there is erotica and porn and then there is really bad porn involving abuse of children and women, which constitutes serious criminality and should not be tolerated and measures have to be adopted to contain it’s spread. The government alone cannot curb this type of content. Here, the network (telecoms and ISP industry), other interested corporates and even individuals have a big role to play.
At the network level, there must be some joint initiatives with dedicated teams comprising technical, legal & operational expertise and financial resources to constantly monitor the Internet, identify and create a database of sites and pages containing criminal sexual content and build mechanisms to track the source of such content and use the necessary means, including possible international co-operation to bring that content down as far as it can be possible. This would require a dedicated setup working 24x7x365 and could possibly be a sufficiently empowered Voluntary organization. This setup could be with a public interface where the public can point and share information on the criminal content. This set up would be quite different from the currently opaque and largely unknown mechanism used by and within the government alone to identify sites to ‘block and ban’, which as I maintain, is really impractical and does nothing to curb the really bad stuff.
At the individual level, however, every parent has the right to be concerned about the exposure and access that a child has to the adult explicit content. I think that while it is inevitable that children in this day and age will have an earlier exposure, there can be proactive measures that can be taken by concerned parents, which can include ‘educating’ the child about bad behavior on the Internet, much like it’s done in the real world. Then there are monitoring, and filtering software, which can be installed to ensure that parents can check upon the child’s online activities and even block a lot of it. This obviously presupposes that even the parents are aware and educated enough and that’s something that the government and industry can address together through relevant capacity building measures.
Hence, to conclude; what we learn from all of the above is that pornography is a reality, always has been. We have to live with it and emerging technologies will only keep making it more ubiquitous than ever before. As long as there is demand there will be supply. For the government to act as a moral police is also not acceptable, and the measures it currently adopts to try ban or block certain sites is really futile and a waste. There are millions of sites out there and more keep coming up and the nature of Internet ensures that the tide cannot be stemmed. What can be done, however, is to identify, content which is seriously criminal in nature and find ways to take them down. It would be a cat and mouse game but it needs to be played out jointly by the government, the industry, society at large and even individuals. An objective understanding on the subject has be to developed and proper measures such as monitoring and filtering tools can be easily used to ensure that children’s exposure is limited to an extent.
Amitabh Singhal, runs a consulting outfit and as a Founder & Former President – ISP Association of India & Founder, Former CEO & Board Member – Nixi, helped initiate and shape the Internet policies for a long time. He is currently also a Board Member of Public Interest Registry Governing Council Member of Digital Empowerment Foundation & Member of Working Group on Internet Proliferation & Governance, DeiTY.
The above are author’s personal views.