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Escort services: Sex on the Internet, a Rs 600 cr business

August 16, 2016 10:16 IST

Despite the government crackdown on Web sites advertising escort services, the Internet leaves enough wiggle room for debauchery to thrive, reports Dhruv Munjal.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Escort services: Hiding a secret in plain sight

Priya Kumar leads a life that most will reject with unapologetic derision.

In the last two years, she has made her peace with the scornful condemnation that comes her way almost routinely. "Very few people in my life know about this. But those who do, the ridicule (from them) is sometimes impossible to take," she says despondently, her mellow voice barely audible over the phone.

In the summer of 2014, Kumar took a scandalous decision to fund her education: She entered the murky business of escorts in New Delhi.

Paying for college was proving to be a continual pain and the choice of this seemingly dark profession was difficult, but inescapable. "It was something that I obviously did not want to do. But where was the option?" she asks.

Soon, Kumar, with the help of a friend, set up a Web site that "put her on the market". "Some friends had tried it and they pushed me into trying it," she says.

Requests immediately started pouring in -- sometimes that number was as high as six or seven every day. The national capital, it seems, has developed a dangerous weakness for such permissiveness.

Based on last year's leaked user data of American infidelity Web site Ashley Madison, Delhi had 38,562 registered users on the portal, making it the unofficial 'adultery capital of the country.' Mumbai (33,036) and Chennai (16,434) were the next two on the list.

"I didn't like what I was doing. But the money was good," says Kumar. "We would fix a meeting place and then head off to the nearest hotel." The amount of money Kumar received was indeed hefty.

One client assignment was fetching her Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000. The rates can reach astronomical levels depending on the 'category' you choose.

Kumar's was among the 237 Web sites that the government's Department of Telecom decided to ban. The IT ministry issued orders asking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to take down Web sites that 'offer or advertise escort services' in the country.

The list of the banned Web sites was made public by the Centre for Internet and Society after the government's reluctance to do so. 'Given that knowledge of what is censored by the government is crucial in a democracy, we are publishing the entire list of blocked Web sites,' the Centre for Internet and Society said in a statement. Requests for further comments did not illicit any response.

"This call was taken to clamp down on illegal activities on the Internet. We may add more to the list of banned Web sites, but we don't know when," says a ministry official, on the condition of anonymity.

The decision was taken based on the recommendations issued by an expert committee set up under the ministry of home affairs.

A similar attempt at censorship by the government -- to ban pornography on the Internet -- was met with a strident response from netizens last year. The government, accused of excessive moral policing, backtracked on its decision later.

Escort services and agencies on the Internet flourish mainly due to flagrant euphemism. Most do not explicitly promise to dish out 'sex' services for money; this service is often disguised under the pledges of mere companionship and dinner dates, sometimes masseur services.

Even classified sections of newspapers are flooded with such advertisements. Modern escort services are a more overt extension of 'friendship clubs' from the years gone by.

And, the business has slowly managed to weave itself into the capricious fabric of social media. A quick search for 'escort services' on Twitter yields thousands of results; some Facebook accounts openly endorse such services.

"It is a menace that is everywhere. This will need a lot of cooperation from all sides in order to be eradicated completely," says a cyber expert.

Even though there are no official numbers available, the escorts industry generates a turnover of over Rs 600 crore (Rs 6 billion) every year.

Sections 372 and 373 of the Indian Penal Code make prostitution and flesh trade illegal in India. As Prashant Mali, cyber law and privacy expert, explains: "Escort services are abating illegal businesses. Hence, they are illegal by law."

Moreover, Section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000 allots power to the government to issue directions for blocking public access of any information through any computer resource.

"In India, 'prostitution' means the act of a female offering her body for promiscuous sexual intercourse for hire, whether in money or in kind, and whether offered immediately or otherwise, and the expression 'prostitute' shall be construed accordingly. Almost all offences punishable under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 are cognisable and non-bailable except one," says Mali, a Mumbai-based lawyer.

Sudeep Gupta is an intrepid middle-aged man who talks frantically with few pauses. Gupta owns an escort agency that operates mainly through the Internet.

With an overall ban now ostensibly imminent, Gupta fears for his business but remains defiant. "I don't care much about the law. We are not doing anything wrong, " he says. "It is an option for people. Nobody is forcing you to use these services. And the government has no right to decide that." Mali adds that the government should carry out a traffic analysis and find out the reason for people visiting such Web sites.

Gupta entered the business after working as a pimp at Delhi's red light district. He has been in the business for five years now, makes up to Rs 2 lakh (Rs 200,000) a month, has bought a couple of splashy cars, and enjoys a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

He says that the only way to wiggle out of the ban is to keep changing domain names. That is the biggest problem before the Net guardians. Authorities can block a domain name, URL or gateway, but a new one can be created and uploaded on the Internet within a few minutes.

"The challenge is how to block them. It is great that the government has acknowledged the problem. But we have to come up with a way to implement this fully and effectively," says Rakshit Tandon, a cyber-security consultant. "Right now, we don't have the know-how to implement this across the board. What all can you block?"

In 2015, the Calcutta high court decided to block www.songs.pk, a popular Pakistani music downloading site. A few days later, the site resurfaced, this time under the name www.songs.pk.pk

Other experts question the very rationale behind banning only 237 such sites when millions of them exist on the Internet. The IT ministry, so far, has conveniently denied to offer an explanation on the reason behind this filtering.

Amid all the cacophony involving 'legal wrongdoing' and 'personal space', telecom operators stand to lose out. Blocking content on the Internet has a debilitating effect on an operator's revenue. N A Vijayashankar, one of the pioneers of cyber law literacy in India, feels that irrespective of the losses, the right thing is being done.

"Service providers are obviously not happy because this means loss of revenue. But you can't go against the law of the land. What is wrong is wrong," he says.

A telecom company official adds that owing to the high traffic that these sites attract, losses will be steep. "It will be bad. But we just cannot go against a government order."

However, cyber security experts like Rajasthan-based Mukesh Choudhary feel that banning is the worst solution that the government could have come up with. "You can visit these sites through a proxy server. You ban one and 10 more will come up. You can't have a single minded approach," he says.

Instead, he calls for something akin to a cyber-patrolling cell that regularly monitors such activities on the Internet. "It's a dramatic decision that will just not work. Nowhere in the world can this be possible. You need a global initiative to make this happen," says Choudhary.

Meanwhile, people like Kumar and Gupta remain hopeful. Legally, they have scant expectations, but they continue to wish that the government goes back on its decision.

Some names have been changed on request

Dhruv Munjal
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