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Porn ban: How easy is it for an ISP to actually block a web page?

The government has left it up to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to determine whether any of those 857 banned websites have child porn or not. If they don't, they're kosher. ISPs, understandably, are in a fix. After all, how exactly are they supposed to determine whether a website has child porn or not?

tech Updated: Aug 05, 2015 14:34 IST
Pranav Dixit
The-Internet-Service-Providers-Association-of-India-ISPAI-has-now-decided-to-approach-the-communications-ministry-to-seek-clarification-on-the-definition-of-pornography-and-child-pornography-and-the-parameters-that-violate-it-Shutterstock
The-Internet-Service-Providers-Association-of-India-ISPAI-has-now-decided-to-approach-the-communications-ministry-to-seek-clarification-on-the-definition-of-pornography-and-child-pornography-and-the-parameters-that-violate-it-Shutterstock

Don't let the headlines mislead you. India's porn ban hasn't exactly been lifted -- it's conditional.

The government has left it up to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to determine whether any of those 857 banned websites have child porn or not. If they don't, they're kosher.

ISPs, understandably, are in a fix. After all, how exactly are they supposed to determine whether a website has child porn or not?

If child porn is indeed found on any of these websites, the ISPs will be held liable for content under Section 79(3)(b) of the IT Act, which applies if: "Upon receiving actual knowledge, or on being notified by the appropriate Government or its agency that any information, data or communication link residing in or connected to a computer resource controlled by the intermediary is being used to commit the unlawful act, the intermediary fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material on that resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner."

The result? ISPs still haven't unblocked the banned websites for fear of inadvertently violating Section 79 of the IT Act.

Read:How a porn website is trolling Indian government over ban

How easy it is for ISPs to block webpages or even entire domains? The process is actually extremely simple.

Unless a website uses encrypted HTTPS connections (like your bank, for instance), an ISP can essentially see every single bit of data flowing between your computer and the website you're accessing because it's flowing through its servers.

Each time you type in the URL of a website -- http://www.hindustantimes.com/, for example -- your ISP checks it against its DNS servers, the internet's equivalent of a phone book, where each URL is stored as an IP address, a string of numbers. To block a specific webpage, all an ISP needs to do is blacklist that page's IP address.

Mint has a great explanation for how this works:

"Think of it like this -- you’re on an island, with no way to reach the mainland (Internet) where all the websites are. The ISP builds a bridge connecting you to the mainland, and charges you to let cars (data) from the sites come to you, by opening the road. Each web page has a unique ID, like a licence plate. If the government tells the ISP to block a specific page, it’s added to the blacklist, and isn’t allowed on the bridge. The government could also block a full domain, such as Facebook.com, which would be like blocking all cars with DL plates, instead of specific numbers."

Read:Meet Kamlesh Vaswani, the lawyer behind India's porn ban

Bans like these are rarely effective. "It is extremely easy to circumvent these blocks, using virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies that anonymise your traffic," Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru told the Hindustan Times.

A proxy is simply a server located in another country that a user in India can route their traffic through to access blocked or region-locked content -- and they're perfectly legal to use.