This Article is From Sep 01, 2015

India vs Child Porn is Currently a Weak Battle

Last year, a spate of incidents of child sexual abuse were reported from prominent schools in my home city Bengaluru. When the parents of an abused child approached me for support, it was admittedly, my first contact with the issue from such close quarters. I realised shortly after my initial interventions on the issue with the authorities, that this was an issue that the Government knew and cared very little about - and that child sexual abuse was ubiquitous enough in our country for it to merit a closer examination by policymakers.

It was during this time that a Bengaluru-based cop let me in on an anecdote that left me shaken - he told me about how the seized laptop of a serial offender was discovered to be completely packed with pornographic content, all of which apparently featured children of Indian origin. I was unsettled by the disconcerting realisation that every single image on that computer involved the commission of an actual physical offence against an Indian child - a deeply worrying fact in the face of research that suggests that people who seek child pornography online could eventually go on to harm a child in real life, therein making the transition from a 'content offence' to a 'contact offence'.

A rather feeble and lazy attempt to address the problem was made earlier in August, when the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology issued an order to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) asking them to ban 857 websites that were allegedly hosting pornographic content. What followed was an understandable outrage amongst citizens at this moral policing. The ministry was caught flatfooted, and forced to retract the ban. Shortly after, they issued an order that required ISPs to track and take down content that featured child pornography. 

This was a move that unfortunately, only exposed the union ministry's lack of understanding of the technical capacity, resources and infrastructure required to tackle a crime as well-entrenched as child pornography. In relegating the responsibility of tracking and pulling down child pornography to the Internet Service Providers - essentially "dead pipes" that have no control over content in the website, the authorities have committed a grave error. It is widely known that new websites can be created anytime and that content owners can change what they are serving anytime without any control of the ISPs. The only way ISPs can pull down child pornography is by doing so manually - which evidently, is an onerous and completely unviable option. 

I attempted to question the Government on the issue of child pornography in Parliament, but saw that several of my most pointed questions to the Ministry of Women and Child Development did not make it to the ballot. I did learn though, that in response to a question in the Lok Sabha last year, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has resorted to the familiar trope of "no such data is maintained centrally" when asked about child pornography by a colleague. This answer, just like those my own questions have received over the last year by her ministry, underscores the indifference and apathy of the Government towards child sexual abuse - a form of terrorism perpetrated against young children. 

Instead of passing the buck, the Government must make a concerted attempt at addressing the problem. This is a complex issue that requires enlisting the competencies of the Ministries of Women and Child Welfare, Home, and Communications and IT. It also requires investing in the resources and capital that will make identifying and arresting abusers a swift, real-time process. 

The government must constitute an inter-ministerial group comprising of representatives from the Home Affairs, Women and Child Development and Communication and IT Ministries to arrive at a technology-based solution to the problem of child pornography. This group must hold extensive consultations with all stakeholders and draft well-crafted roles for each group - including ISPs, the police, parents etc. 

Cutting-edge child porn tracking technologies are already widely in use in countries such as the United Kingdom, USA and Germany. One such technology is the Microsoft-developed PhotoDNA software that Facebook uses to track illegal images among the several million images uploaded to the social network every day. Google, too, is reportedly working to evolve a new technology which will, for the first time, allow internet search engines and other web firms to swap information about images of children being raped and abused.  

Other issues also plague the system's ability to respond effectively to the problem of child pornography. The Indian Penal Code, for instance, does not allow for the filming of children for pornographic purposes to be covered under its provisions. This, too, needs a re-look. There is also inadequate information about the extent of child abuse in the country. Barring a few sporadic studies, with limited scope, the attempt to understand the different forms and magnitude of child abuse across the country has been inadequate. The only information available annually is the crime data maintained by National Crime Records Bureau - and it is therefore no surprise that the Ministry is often caught with its foot in the mouth every time an MP asks a pertinent question about child abuse. 

Data gaps are severely impeding our ability to comprehend and respond to the problem, and it is about time that the Government commissioned an exhaustive fact finding study into child sexual abuse and its preponderance. This is exactly the request I have made of Maneka Gandhi in a letter to the minister in June of this year - a correspondence I am yet to receive an acknowledgement for. 

My hope is that the present NDA leadership shall take stock of the extent of the threat that India's 400 million children are exposed to. It is lamentable that 60 years on since Independence, no Government so far has taken the actions necessary to Protect Our Children. This Government needs to adopt a Maximum Governance driven strategy to ensure the safety, well being and development of our children, and it is high time that the response to child sexual abuse transitions from being incident specific and reactive, to one that is institutional. 

(Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a Rajya Sabha MP and Technology Entrepreneur.)

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