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GREY MATTER

Is the Centre “competent” to “call off” all pornographic websites? A blanket ban on pornography is not possible, the secretary to the department of telecommunications has replied to this query from the Supreme Court. The Information Technology Act, 2000, makes child pornography a punishable offence. So, the government can implement this aspect of the law by banning pornography involving minors. But, beyond this, it would be difficult for the State to summarily block all pornographic content on the internet without getting into absurd and objectionable forms of censorship. The court’s query arose from a public interest litigation asking for a blanket ban on the grounds that pornography incites viewers to sexual offences against women.

This is a difficult terrain, founded on concepts that are impossible to define unambiguously, and hence to adjudicate at a practical level. First, there is the perennial — and perennially unanswerable — question of what constitutes pornography. This unanswerability is essential to the health — political, cultural, psychosexual — of every modern democracy. The elusively subjective quality of sexual desire makes definitions of what is obscene or pornographic difficult to set down in stone without lapsing into a totalitarianism that starts making serious infringements of the right to privacy and freedom of expression. So, respect for human dignity and sensitivity in particular instances of ethical uncertainty are what every mature society relies on in these matters. With those who are not yet adults, the regulation of access to the internet should be left to the good sense of the people and institutions responsible for their well-being. Second, the link between pornography (whatever that may be) and sexual violence has not been properly investigated in India. Common experience and whatever little has been observed in the West furnish no conclusive evidence of a direct causal link between the two. Perfectly decent and harmless people watch pornography all over the world and continue to lead sexually innocuous lives. As to unrealized fantasies, no State or legal system in the world has been able to regulate the boundaries of the imagination. Governments, lawkeepers and concerned citizens often have to confront the limits of their capacity to intervene in matters of right and wrong, good and bad.