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Ban on online escort services is an assault on freedom. Here's why

Shuma Raha | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

On 13 June, the Department of Telecommunications ordered internet service providers to block nearly 240 websites offering escort services. The diktat came out of the blue, without any attendant statement from the government. But it made for a distinct sense of déjà vu.

In July last year, the Centre had tried to ban 857 pornographic websites, ostensibly to protect our countrymen (and women) from "immoral" influences on the internet. That initiative came to nought, and the government backtracked, following a huge public and social media outcry against its attempt to police not just the internet, but also the private lives and sexual habits of citizens.

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However, the directive to black out websites of escort services shows that a year down the line, the government is unwavering in its resolve to censor the internet at will - especially if it feels the censorship is in the interest of upholding its own ideas of public morality.

Escort services are, of course, an euphemism for the services of companions, whether male or female, that usually involve sex. According to media reports, the order to take down the URLs of some 240 such websites came on the recommendation of an expert committee under the home ministry. One can picture some high-minded denizens of the ministry thundering that just like pornography, escort services too are roads to moral perdition.

The question is, when the state is in no position to ban prostitution - under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, buying and selling of sex is not illegal - why is it trying to take up cudgels against the relatively small market for escort services? Especially since, legally speaking, all they are doing is providing escorts?

Last year, Modi govt tried to ban 857 porn websites, ostensibly to protect us from immoral influences

The government's repeated attempts to police the internet and ferret out and ban its so-called corrupting elements are at once absurd and sinister. First, they are an assault on internet freedom, restricting as they do people's right to put out and access information.

Second, they are a violation of citizens' right to personal liberty as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. If an adult Indian wishes to access an escort service online, it is really a matter of that individual's personal choice. The state has no business trying to prevent him or her from doing so.

Tens of thousands of Indians are registered on the infidelity website Ashley Madison. According to data leaked after the website was hacked last year, Delhi alone has as many as 38,652 users. Would the state want to block that site too? After all, it does facilitate extramarital affairs. Or perhaps it might want to go after dating apps like Tinder (its recent sanskari advertisement notwithstanding)? Indeed, there is no end to the extent to which the net of "immorality" may be flung.

Also read: These 10 websites don't deserve to be on DoT's 'porn' list

Ironically, trying to block websites is an exercise in futility because of how robust and open the internet is designed to be. Even as the ISPs comply with the government order and take off the blacklisted URLs - not doing so would make them liable for action under the Information Technology Rules, 2009 -- the offending content might pop up elsewhere on the internet under different domain names or URLs pointing to the same server, or mirrored on different servers. In short, unless you have a great firewall like China has and take all of the country's internet traffic through it, blocking sites effectively is next to impossible. And India is unlikely to go China's way at this point.

In 2011, UPA regime asked Google to remove 358 items, 255 of these for being critical of the state

Even so, the government persists in trying to censor the internet, cleanse it of moral irritants as it were, essentially because the effort ties in with its larger attempt to control personal behaviour and freedom of choice in every sphere of life. The BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, along with its allies in the states, has been trying to determine what we eat, how we dress, whom we go to bed with, what books we read, what texts we study, how we entertain ourselves and which part of the internet we don't get to see.

Last year's toxic rhetoric over the beef ban, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma's comments that night-outs by girls were contrary to Indian culture, Mumbai police's utterly reprehensible arrest of adults from hotel rooms are all part of that grand design.

They are all aimed to make us conform to a Hindutva-led monolithic idea of Indian culture and morality, one that is completely at odds with the ideals of democracy and pluralism on which the Constitution is based.

Of course, this is hardly the only government to have put curbs on the internet. Even under the UPA dispensation, ISPs were regularly ordered to block and remove content on the pretext that it was "defamatory" or "hateful" or "inflammatory", and so on. According to a Google transparency report released in December 2011, the search engine had been asked to remove around 358 items by the government, of which 255 were said to be critical of the state. The same year, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi's website was blocked because his cartoons mocked the powers-that-be. There are many other such instances.

Trying to scrub pornographic sites, escort services off the internet is not any different. It makes the internet just as unfree. But it has the additional effect of infantalising citizens, of not treating them as mature adults who should be free to make their moral, ethical and personal choices.

Morality is a personal canon. It's unfortunate that the present government can't appreciate this simple fact.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation

Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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First published: 15 June 2016, 10:58 IST