The India government is under fire for a sweeping censorship move blocking hundreds of adult websites as a social nuisance. A total of 87 websites were blocked — denying millions of adults the right to choose their own associations and entertainment. It is a triumph for morality codes and a significant erosion of free speech and privacy protections for the Indian people.
The government issued a 17-page order on July 31st that listed sites as immoral and indecent for blocking by service providers.
Notably, the move by the government is in defiance of the Supreme Court which ruled last month that it would not approve a ban on such sites and that individuals should be free to access such websites in private.
The government then moved unilaterally and over the weekend several sites became inaccessible and displayed messages that they were blocked on instructions of the competent authority.
It is the latest move by a government that has increasingly sought to deny citizens access and the right to choose their own entertainment. The government sought to ban twitter accounts as well as some movies. Notably, adult Internet sites like Pornhub have noted that India ranks fifth for daily visits in the world.
The continued attack on free speech in India is worrisome, particularly given a trend in the West. We have been discussing the crackdown on free speech in the West, particularly in England, France, and Canada.
I have long been a critic of the criminalization of symbols and gestures, even deeply offensive symbols like Nazi gestures. Europe has plunged into speech regulation and criminalization – showing that such laws create a slippery slope for the criminalization of unpopular speech. This course inevitably leads to increasing — and increasingly absurd — speech crimes. For example, I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications.
The problem is trying to draw such lines rather than embracing free speech as protecting not just popular but unpopular and even hateful speech. Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. For example, we have been following (here and here and and and here and and here and here) the worsening situation in England concerning free speech. As noted in a recent column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
India has long shown an appetite for censorship that appears to have only grown — even in the face of the instructive decision by the Supreme Court. As a country with with one of the world’s oldest democratic governments and a society that has a rich artistic legacy, the attack on free speech in India is self-defeating and alarming. The effort to impose a state morality code harkens back to a bygone era in the West — a legacy of criminalized speech and associations. Not only will this effort to ban sites fail, the effort itself will only fuel greater and greater demands for speech laws and morality codes in one of the most pluralistic nations on Earth.