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Indian Government Blocks, Then Quickly Unblocks Porn Sites

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An Indian Christian woman holds a placard denouncing pornography at a protest rally in Bangalore in August 2014.

India is an ancient, traditional country. It's also a democracy that's very modern when it comes to the Internet and technology.

That's one reason the country sometimes sends mixed messages like this: Publishing or distributing pornography in print or on the Web is illegal in India. But viewing it is not.

With this in mind, lawyer Vijay Panjwani argued before the Supreme Court last month that pornography should be blocked as broadly as possible.

"Pornography is a criminal activity from A to Z. Completely!" he says.

But even he acknowledged that abolishing it is impossible given India's huge Internet use and the widespread presence of smartphones.

"A 20-year-old has a mobile phone, a 9-year-old has a mobile. Who's going to stop them?" he asks.

For a few days this past week it appeared the government was on his side.

In one of the biggest dragnets of its kind, India's Telecommunications Ministry ordered Internet providers to block more than 850 sites.

Most were pornographic. But those swept up in the directive included CollegeHumor.com, which tends toward the sophomoric and the raunchy, though not pornographic.

Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Center for Internet and Society, obtained the list of sites that had been kept secret and then published the list online.

"And until I did that, no one knew what all had been blocked," Prakash says. "The government was essentially arguing until that point that it was blocking only child pornography. And we saw that that was not true."

Social Media Lambasts Government

The government directive sparked a raging debate on social media in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government was accused of censorship and scorned for playing nanny to the nation.

It didn't take long for #NewBanIdea to spring to life and Indian irreverence to run wild.

"Ban tax collection," tweeted Parikshit Joshi and "corruption will end."

Sandhya Naidu tweeted, "Land of Kamasutra, too much nudity on some of your sculptures ... Do something, please."

"Let's ban everything and become North Korea," added Harpreet Bhatia.

In the face of the barrage, the government on Wednesday relented and lifted the ban for all sites except those engaging in child pornography.

This move left feminists such as Ranjana Kumari distressed. The adult site Pornhub.com ranks India as one of the world' most prolific consumers of pornography. And much of it, Kumari says, is about eroticizing the subjugation of women.

"Why ban only child porn?" she says.

Stand-up comics, on the other hand, were relishing the new material.

Comedian Anuvab Pal joked that the government reversed itself to indulge its core supporters.

"A large number of voting base are young men who want economic development, strong government, but they are also large consumers of pornography," he says with a laugh. "And that's the base they don't want to alienate. I think they realize it."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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