Wednesday, December 3, 2014

web filter

“This planned prohibition of pornography and any other objectionable content will ultimately come at a cost to our collective interest in the freedom of expression while simultaneously turning a deaf ear to what science is or isn’t able to account for. A web filter opens the doors to abuse, stupidity, official petty-mindedness and a habit of giving up and reaching for the easiest way out.” In the light of government’s plan to filter the web, critically comment on the statement.

On April 16, 2013, Kamlesh Vaswani, an advocate from Indore, filed a Public Interest Litigation petition in the Supreme Court of India asking for the viewing of pornography to be made a non-bailable offence and demanding that pornographic content on the Internet be blocked. The court subsequently asked the government to respond to the petition. Fast forward to September 2014, by which time both the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance-II and the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments said they were unable to track the number of cases and block Internet pornography in India.
Then, on September 5, 2014, Information Technology and telecommunications officials from various Ministries, including Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad convened at the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY) to discuss a solution to the pornography question. They discussed not why but how to implement a web filter, which is a technical system that controls what content is blocked on the Internet.
Mr. Vaswani’s petition cited pornography as being the reason for rapes in the country. But is there a demonstrable psychological link between viewing pornography and perpetrating sexual violence?
Social predispositions
Studies have shown show that non-aggressive men’ s reactions to non-violent pornography is markedly different from aggressive men’s reactions to violent pornography (Malamuth et al 2000; Kingston et al 2009). Among women, findings show that those who have experienced coercive sexual behaviour before exposure to pornography are offended by violent pornography but approve of erotica (which is the artistic use of subject matter for sexual arousal) (Senn and Radtke 1990). Similarly, women who have not experienced coercive sexual behaviour before exposure to pornography approve of non-violent pornography in general (Sommers and Check 1987).
Therefore, it is clear that pornography can’t be treated as an undifferentiated mass and that its implications for sexual violence can’t be assessed without accounting for one’s social predispositions. In fact, a 2010 study conducted by the University of Zagreb in Croatia pinpointed a confounding factor: sexual sensation seeking. The study was able to show that while there seemed to be no demonstrable link between viewing pornography and sexual behaviour, the age at which the viewer was exposed to pornography and sexual stimulation-seeking behaviour seemed to affect how aggressive the viewer turned out to be.
In fact, an Indian study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine in June 2014 was able to go so far as to conclude that “easy access to pornography did not have a significant impact on rape [and crime] rates against women” by comparing “reported incidence of crime” in 1971-2008 and “availability of pornography over the Internet with a particular focus on crime against women.”
Moreover, there are also shortcomings in evaluation hinged on the inability to statistically eliminate the unconscious biases of those designing the tests. In India, as elsewhere, these confounding factors would point at the wider social environment one grows up in. If the DEITY group really wanted to curb sexual violence, they would go after all the black sheep in this environment — from the entrenched culture of misogyny to the objectification of women in popular culture that is consumed en masse — but no. Science is unable to show that pornography causes sexual violence, and so the reason for a web filter is something else, and worthy of suspicion at that.
Some studies even argue that viewing pornography gives men and women a safe way to release their sexual stress in the privacy of their homes without having to resort to publicly dissonant behaviour (e.g. Ferguson & Hartley 2009). With a filter in place, there is a chance that sexual violence could thus increase.
So why is there so much need for a filter at all? A web filter is the answer because it is the perfect technological solution to problems that we would like to sweep under the rug without debate or discussion. It allows parents to avoid coming up with a rational explanation for why pornography is evil; it provides the perfect cover for politicians who cannot define what obscenity is, let alone try and explain how it is “destroying Indian culture.”
The people in favour of a web filter understand this all too well, which is why untenable arguments such as “pornography causes sexual violence and is responsible for crimes against women” are advanced, because they are causes that we can all seemingly get behind and support. Likewise, the war against child pornography is a great rallying call. But while it is a noble objective, it is also a mask that hides the other problems for which a web filter will be used.
The problem with technological solutions in particular, and algorithmic regulation in general, is that they are primarily judged by their efficiency and not by whether they are serving the larger interests of the population. In the pre-Internet and mobile age, we had to decide whether to deliver solutions through the market or the state, which had their own ideological differences as to who the solution was really serving.
Today this clarity is lost as our choice is between analogue and digital solutions and the only criteria by which we judge success is efficiency. When we use technology to create massive databases of citizen data, governments across the world think only about how much more efficient it is compared to the old paper-and-filing-cabinet regime and not about how these databases bring with them the potential for surveillance, tracking and profiling. The transformation from paper-filing to online database brings a number of benefits in terms of costs and convenience. What it also does is make the data more accessible than it should be, to the detriment of citizens.
Bypassing filters
A government-imposed filtering mechanism also fails to serve the larger sections of the population. As the members of the cyber regulation advisory committee pointed out, filters deployed by Internet service providers to block specific online material can be easily bypassed through a number of mechanisms.
Furthermore, it is difficult to argue whether the majority of Indians truly believe that pornography is harming this country’s cultural sensitivities. Data recently released by one of the world’s biggest pornography websites points out that Indians are, and have been, among the most prolific consumers of Internet pornography in the world.
This planned prohibition of pornography and any other objectionable content will ultimately come at a cost to our collective interest in the freedom of expression while simultaneously turning a deaf ear to what science is or isn’t able to account for. A web filter opens the doors to abuse, stupidity, official petty-mindedness and a habit of giving up and reaching for the easiest way out.
Is it worth trading away our assured freedoms for merely speculative benefits?

(Vasudevan Mukunth is a science journalist. Anuj Srivas is at the Oxford Internet Institute, U.K.)


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