India File

A perspective on porn

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on: May 06, 2019
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Knee-jerk reactions such as the ban on TikTok signal prejudiced attitudes towards social media and pornography

On February 12, 2019, Nagapattinam MLA Thamimun Ansari told the Tamil Nadu Assembly that TikTok is damaging Indian culture by spreading pornography, triggering a heated debate not only around the way the Chinese app allegedly helps spread obscene content, but also on the authorities’ approach towards pornography in the country.

Asking the government to ban TikTok, Ansari said TikTok creates law and order issues while abetting obscene activities. According to Ansari, most TikTok videos were nothing but “dances and songs presented in a vulgar way”.

Ansari is not alone. Many lawmakers, regulatory bodies and judicial institutions tend to look at social media as spaces that spread content — mainly porn and violence — that harm “Indian values”. Websites that disseminate pornography were banned in India several times, most recently in December 2018 when the telecom department banned 827 porn sites.

But soon the Web was flooded with thousands of mirror sites and back-channels and applications that make porn available, proving the ban a damp squib. “Rather than banning such content, what we as a country must do is to create greater levels of awareness among the children and the youth on pornography and violent content online so that they voluntarily put in checks and balances, which can be backed by policy moves,” says Shiju Joseph, psychologist and social affairs commentator trained at Bengaluru’s NIMHANS. “This phobia towards pornography is not going to help us in the long run.”

According to Prasanto K Roy, a tech policy consultant in Delhi, the recent action against TikTok is worrying that “a single PIL based on dubious morality and the old section 66A principles of ‘it offended me’ can shut down a modern internet-based platform that has safe harbour protection under Indian laws and intermediary guidelines. This paints a worrying future for India’s aspirations as a modern, digitally-powered nation,” says Roy.

TikTok is a democratic leveller. It is great that just anybody with very little education or skillset could use it, unlike Instagram, which is rather elitist,” says Vidya Reddy, co-founder TULIR-Centre for the Prevention and Healing Child Sexual Abuse, a Chennai-based NGO. “A ban on it, hence. doesn’t make any sense. The key issue here is in creating awareness about using such platforms responsibly and creatively.”

Devanik Saha, a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK, who tracks technology and its social impact in India, says that the current Indian dispensation is not prejudiced or paranoid towards emerging technologies, especially because the BJP was the first political party in India to embrace technologies for elections and political purposes.

“However, the problem is more with knee-jerk reactions to issues, which is symptomatic of the larger policy regime in India. It is because the public wants to have quick-fix solutions to most problems and, therefore, this tendency to take instant decisions has seeped into the government mindset as well,” says Saha. The accusations against TikTok were about pornography, spoiling Indian culture, etc., which are very sensitive issues in the Indian context and thus the instant reaction, notes Saha.

But Roy says the action against TikTok was aligned with India’s broad policy direction and xenophobia, especially toward Chinese-origin products or services. “I suspect we would have seen a different outcome if this were WhatsApp or any other American intermediary platform, which also are often used for transmitting porn or worse,” says Roy.

According to Roy, India’s policy regime in the past year or so has been showing rising nationalism, protectionism and rising prejudice against multinational/global companies operating in India. “We have seen this in multiple policy changes or clarifications, from the RBI’s April 6, 2017, circular on data localisation for payments firms, to the MoC’s DPIIT Press Note 2 of 2018 (Dec 26), to the draft e-commerce policy and a range of others in between,” says Roy. This is opportunistic nationalism that is often driven by or supported by domestic lobbies, including large corporates and ideological groups such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, he argues.

What can be done?

That said, are technology companies hesitant when it comes to creating awareness around the content they spread?

“I see plenty of action taken by Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, including shutting down accounts. I see sharp blowbacks too, for instance, the Tech Parliamentary Committee going after Twitter India at the instance of the BJP, after troll accounts that were suspended included some of anonymous BJP supporters,” says tech policy consultant Roy. Still, tech platforms need to recognise and act on the understanding that despite intermediary protections they have a responsibility to help create a safer digital regime and experience on their platforms, especially for women and children, and for all users. “Sometimes, this realisation comes only after government pressure,” says Roy.

“We need to have more technocrats and technology experts working with the government rather than just bureaucrats. Having experienced experts will push the government to address these questions in a phased manner rather than knee-jerk reactions,” says Saha.

Experts say tech platforms need to have clear community guidelines for user safety and privacy, and communicate those, act on those. They must have clear privacy guidelines and act to enforce those and they must work with governments so that requests for lawful access to data can be processed, while complying with the country’s laws. “The tech platforms must work on identifying, flagging fake news using technology and on their platforms if possible, and where not possible due to encryption, etc., supporting such initiatives outside of their platforms,” says Roy.

“The medium is such that it is changing so rapidly. The time available for any government or agency to understand and react to such a medium is very less. The paranoia is not so much about what can go wrong. It is that authorities are caught unaware of the developments. And government feels it is responsible for the security of the citizen so it worries about the content,” says Sanjay Mehta of social media agency Mirum.

“Content dissemination companies must share the blame for the content they spread, even though it is very difficult for them to screen everything that goes on their platforms. A Wikipedia kind of model — cultivating user collectives that can act as a vigilante force — may work in bringing in more efficiency to the way content is moderated across platforms such as TikTok or Facebook,” says Mehta.

TULIR’s Reddy says that at the end of the day, it is a human being who clicks or logs into the website or app. How many parents are giving their children gadgets to keep them occupied?, she asks. “It starts with that. It is not easy to create checks and balances, unless there is a proper curriculum on digital citizenship/cyber civics (like teaching physics of chemistry) in schools.

Adds Reddy, “The UK has a cabinet minister for digital safety; there is an eSafety Commissioner for Australians; Canada supports a wide variety of resources on digital safety. How many academic institutions in India researchdigital safety issues? Very few.”

“In the US, every state has an ICAC — The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program; except for Kerala at present, we don’t have anything similar in India. Digitally, we have moved from the bullock cart to rocket science without experiencing the in-between stages,” says Reddy.

Published on May 06, 2019

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