Centre for Internet & Society

The government's move to block more than 800 pornographic websites has led experts to question whether this latest attempt to police the internet is even feasible.

The article by Siladitya Ray was published in the Hindustan Times on August 3, 2015. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

Internet service providers (ISPs) have confirmed they received letters from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on Saturday that directed them to block certain websites. But can the government stop users from visiting porn sites?

The answer seems to be no.

"It is extremely easy to circumvent these blocks, using virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies that anonymise your traffic," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru.

A cursory Google search on how to unblock porn websites throws up millions of how-tos and guides on using proxies and VPNs to get around restrictions set by authorities. All these services anonymise users’ web traffic by routing them through foreign servers.

According to data from Pornhub, one of the world's biggest porn sites, India ranks fifth for the most daily visitors to the website. Pornhub saw a total of 78.9 billion video views globally in 2014.

The government can try to keep up with proxies and block them too. But as proxies change on a daily basis and there are always dozens of functioning proxies to choose from across, blocking all of them will be a near impossible task.

Tor, an anonymity network, is also a popular way to surf blocked sites.

But is it legal to circumvent blocks put in place by authorities by using VPNs and proxies?

There is no law in India that prohibits viewing pornography, experts say. Section 67 of the Information Technology Act only deals with "publishing obscene information in electronic form".

This provision has been interpreted as a measure to criminalise the posting of pornographic content online. However, accessing "obscene" content privately – such as within the four walls of a person’s home – is not illegal, say experts.

In July, while hearing a petition seeking the blocking of pornographic websites, Supreme Court Chief Justice HL Dattu wondered whether the court could restrain an adult from watching pornography within his home and described such a ban as a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, which grants the right to personal liberty to its citizens.

But what about the legality of using VPNs and proxies? “There are no laws preventing the use of VPNs and proxies in India," said Prakash.

Are proxies and VPNs safe?

While the use of proxies and VPNs is very simple, they do come with their own set of problems. These services have access to all your browsing data and may push adware and other forms of malware.

Prakash advised that users should only choose services that are well known and have a good reputation.

"Sites like TorrentFreak put out annual lists of the top VPNs available," he said. These can be used as a guide to determine what services are safe.