Pakistan walks back ‘obscene’ text message ban, vows further censorship

J. Arthur Bloom Deputy Editor
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As of this writing, text messages containing the words “poop,” “damn,” “athlete’s foot,” “monkey crotch” and “flogging the dolphin” are still making it over the airwaves in Pakistan. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) recently moved to ban the shameless trafficking in profanity, but they appear to have run into enforcement difficulties and postponed the measure.

According to a letter from the PTA chief dated November 14, the ban requires mobile providers to police their networks for a list of 1,600 banned words — around 1,000 in English, the rest in Urdu — remove the offensive content and report statistics back to the regulatory authority. The letter claims the goal of the ban is “to protect the interests of consumers.”

The measure, predictably, provoked wide ridicule on social networking sites for the inclusion of not only vulgar language, but even seemingly innocuous words like “nude,” “deposit” and “drunk.” But Pakistani officials are denying the original list was intended to be binding.

A spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority told Voice of America 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.”

Monday evening, Pakistani telecommunications companies announced they would put off implementing the ban pending further “clarification” from the PTA.

“We are in discussions with the regulator to evaluate this proposal. Once we reach a mutual agreement, we will take appropriate action,” Omar Manzur, spokesman for Mobilink, Pakistan’s leading telecom operator, told the Hindustan Times.

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J. Arthur Bloom