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November 20, 2011

Pakistan Postpones Texting Censorship

by Kurt Achin

Pakistani officials are denying they ordered the country's mobile phone operators to block certain text messages sent by customers.

A free speech advocacy group plans to sue the government over a list containing hundreds of so-called obscene words and phrases, which has since been widely mocked by ordinary Pakistanis on social media. According to a letter signed by the chief of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority dated November 14, the order to block text messages containing prohibited words was ordered to go into effect on Monday.

The letter orders mobile phone service providers to block text messages containing any of more than 1,600 words and phrases -- more than 1,000 of them in English, the rest in Urdu. The letter says the move is designed "to protect the interests of consumers" and requires telecom companies to report the number of blocked messages back to the authority monthly.

Since the letter and list became public last week, social media services like Twitter have exploded with derisive ridicule from Pakistanis. Few would disagree most of the words on the list are vulgar, but some of the words included are viewed as more innocuous and occasionally bizarre. "Sex," "condom," and "nude" are all on the list. So are the words "Jesus Christ," "deposit," "drunk," and, perhaps the most frequently ridiculed, "monkey crotch."

Pakistani officials are downplaying the apparent order to ban the content.

Mohammad Younis, spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) said via translator that the list should never have been made public, explaining it was meant to be kept between PTA and mobile phone companies as a means to find out whether it was possible to filter obscene messages. He said a final, shorter list of banned words will be released later, after consultation with phone companies.

Shahzad Ahmad, Pakistan country director for the digital free speech advocacy, Bytes for All, said his group intends to take the issue to court. He described the PTA's letter and list as a clear directive to censor mobile phone traffic.

"It has actually embarrassed and shamed us a lot. This is outrageous," he said. "I don't know how and why PTA had so much time [or] how much effort they have put in to compile this stupid list without realizing what kind of impact it will have on the whole communication infrastructure, which is already pretty pathetic."

Ahmad added that Pakistan, as an Islamic state, has had the legal tools available for years to block communication deemed blasphemous. He said the government has abused that capability.

"When they would block blasphemous content, they would actually block political discourse, and we have ample evidence of how they would do that," he said. "And now they want to use this as an excuse to block more political content, [and] I see no good reason behind this censorship or ban."

By Monday evening, Pakistani telecommunications companies announced they would hold off on implementing any text message blocking guidelines until they could seek further "clarification" from the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority.