The Canada-born porn star Sunny Leone moved to India a few years ago and is now a mainstream Bollywood actor. (AP)

India’s government clamped down on more than 850 pornographic Web sites over the weekend, directing Internet service providers to cut off access even as critics said it is impossible to police the Web.

“We have blocked 857 sites. Under the Indian law, we are duty-bound to examine and block Web sites that transmit content that violates morality and decency,” said Ram Sewak Sharma, an official in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

According to India’s information technology law, publishers and transmitters of “material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons” face five to seven years in prison and a fine. A 1986 law also prohibits publishing content that contains “indecent representation of women.”

On Tuesday, a senior official in the ministry said the government has sent fresh instructions to block only sites that show child pornography and “gross porn.” The official did not offer any definition for what constitutes “gross.”

“We are committed to upholding freedom on the Internet,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media on the subject.

“Ultimately, we have to take a uniform view after hearing the views of consumers of porn, child rights activists and women’s rights activists,” the official added. “Soon, we will work on setting up regulatory oversight mechanism for this away from the government.”

Many Indians learned about the government action from a Reddit India thread on Sunday that said some porn sites were inaccessible.

“We are grateful to the government for enforcing the law because such sites are corrupting the minds and moral fiber of society and also lead to crime against women. It leads to social pollution,” said Vijay Panjwani, a lawyer who filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court three years ago against Internet porn.

“It is not practical for the government to stop viewers or actors of the pornographic content. That is why we have been saying, ‘Block, block, block.’ The easy access to online pornographic content must stop immediately,” he added.

The news portal Firstpost.com on Monday called the government’s move “a dangerous misstep towards hurting the freedom of the Internet.”

“Right now, there seems to be a ‘ban first, debate later’ policy and that can’t be a good thing,” it said.

India has the second-largest population of Internet users in the world, trailing only China. India is expected to have more than 500 million Internet users by 2017, compared with about 350 million now, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

The rapid growth of smartphones is fueling Internet use, analysts say. Millions of Indians access porn on their smartphones or by inserting memory chips containing racy videos that are easily available at low prices, reports say.

The Canada-born porn star Sunny Leone moved to India a few years ago and is now a mainstream Bollywood actress. Seeking an image makeover, she stopped producing porn.

In 2012, three members of the legislative assembly in the southern state of Karnataka were caught watching porn on their smartphones. The politicians had to resign after a widespread public outcry.

This is, however, not the first time that authorities have tried to block Internet content in India. In 2011, the government led by the Congress party ordered Internet companies to screen and remove offensive content about religious figures and political leaders.

Lawyers say that although the government is legally empowered to block pornographic content, the effectiveness of such censorship is questionable.

“We are going on a wild goose chase. We have to learn from other countries that have tried to block and have failed,” said Pavan Duggal, a lawyer who specializes in cyber law. “You block 10 sites today, 100 new sites will mushroom tomorrow. It is a very naive move.”

Last month, Supreme Court Chief Justice H.L. Dattu said the court could not stop an adult from watching porn privately. But he added that the issue is “definitely serious,” that “some steps need to be taken” and that the government is “expected to take a stand.”

Some Internet companies have said that it is impossible to block all such sites because many of the servers that host them are outside India. Also, the sites can still be accessed through proxy servers.

Some social commentators say banning porn Web sites is a populist move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Modi belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which casts itself as a defender of Indian cultural values. Other critics said that such a move is practically irreversible because no political party can afford to be seen as demanding the restoration of access to these sites.

“Banning porn is an age-old trick that many countries have tried. It will always find many supporters,” said Mahesh Bhatt, a Bollywood filmmaker who wrote the script for a movie that launched Leone as a lead actor three years ago.

“But what is this idea of India that they are trying to promote? There are many Indias — one is where centuries-old erotic Hindu temples still exist with stone carvings of all kinds of sexual postures. These temples are celebrated as our heritage. The other is an India that became sexophobic after the Muslims and the Judeo-Christian rulers came here.”

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