India can't censor all Internet porn. Should it even be trying?

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At first glance, India seems an unlikely place to encounter heavy-handed censorship. The country is the world's largest democracy, with a tradition of robust political debate and vibrant media.

But India also has a history of banning books, movies, music and even maps.

A court banned a BBC documentary called "India's Daughter" earlier this year. The film explored a vicious Delhi gang rape and murder case.

A comedy video that skewered two famous actors was pulled off the Internet in January after its producers were threatened with legal action.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" was never allowed to hit movie theaters. India-born Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," which sparked protests over its depiction of Islam, was banned in 1998. Years later, in 2012, Rushdie was forced to cancel an appearance at a literary festival after he was threatened.

Censorship decisions are often rooted in ethnic and religious sensitivities. The constitution protects freedom of expression, but those who deliberately offend religious feelings can end up in jail.

Porn problems

The latest example of government censorship is an attempt to prevent Indians accessing some of the world's most popular porn websites. The directive, which took effect on Monday, instructs Internet service providers to restrict access to 857 sites.

Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the India-based Center for Internet and Society, said the ban is India's largest crackdown on Internet content so far. The backlash on social media was immediate, with most people criticizing the government.

Still, the order is mostly symbolic. It does nothing to prevent Indians from visiting any of the tens of thousands of other porn sites on the Internet, and even banned sites can be easily accessed through a Virtual Private Network or another proxy.

Chetan Bhagat, an investment banker turned novelist, described the porn ban as "anti-freedom," "impractical" and "not enforceable." He suggested India next ban olive oil (too Western), funny TV shows (why laugh?) and pizza (not Indian).

"Anyone who has an opinion different from yours must be banned," Bhagat said on Twitter. "After all, you are always right."

Digital censors

Critics see the porn ban as part of a larger battle over the future of the Internet in India. The question, they say, is whether India's temptation to ban books and movies will be replicated online -- and whether India will join some of its neighbors in Asia in building tools that control content on the web.

By some measures, India is already restrictive. In the first half of 2014, Facebook blocked nearly 5,000 "pieces of content" in India -- more than any other country.

Facebook said the content was reported by Indian law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. The censored pages, the social network said, included "anti-religious content and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony."

Activists cite another example of digital censorship gone too far: India's decision in late 2014 to block the websites GitHub, Vimeo, The Internet Archive, Pastebin and Daily Motion for allegedly hosting content created by terror group ISIS.

Blocking websites that host millions of pieces of content, they say, is not a smart way to restrict access to a few pieces of objectionable video or text.

Activists' worst fear is that India will create and administer a filter that will allow it to control access to Internet content.

China is a pioneer in this area: It's built an Internet ecosystem beyond the so-called "Great Firewall" that is patrolled by small armies of censors. It is, by all accounts, very effective.

But is that really what India wants?

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