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The Lowdown: Pakistan’s Telecom Regulator Directs Telcos To Filter SMSs; Reportedly BackTracks

Reports indicate that the directive issued by Pakistan’s telecom regulator banning certain words and phrases from being transmitted via SMS, is being deferred or being completely withdrawn. So what is this all about?

The directive: The PTA had earlier issued a list of more than 1695 English (view) and Urdu (view) words and phrases including words (we’re publishing the polite ones here, but it gets worse) such as ‘Jesus Christ’, tampon, fart, athlete’s foot, damn, deeper, harder, four twenty, fornicate, looser, ‘go to hell’ and idiot, and had said that it could restrict free speech in the “interest of the glory of Islam” and had a responsibility to prevent “obnoxious communication”. It had directed all telcos to implement the filters by 20th November and had asked all mobile phone companies to submit a monthly report indicating the total number of blocked messages by each operator.

Sources for the original list: Interestingly, Pro Pakistani has also revealed the source of the list in one of its posts. It says that the PTA might have just searched for a list of offensive words. The list of English words are exactly the same words that appeared in a list of words/phrases that were actually disallowed to be used for personalized jerseys sold by NFL Shop (National Football League shop). It has also linked to lists of Urdu, Gujarati and Punjabi words that were apparently blindly copied by the authority.

Order has been deferred: According to a report by the Daily Times, Pakistan’s mobile service operators have deferred the implementation of Pakistan Telecom Authority’s directive (pdf) asking all telcos to filter text messages or SMS for supposedly obscene indecent, false and fabricated content. The report adds that the telcos were in discussions with the authority to reach a consensus on the issue, and leave out commonly used words and phrases which were also included in the list. A PTA spokesperson also clarified that the authority would review phrases and words in the current list and possibly amend it as per its usage. The telcos were also concerned about the effect of the filtering on mobile networks, and on revenue generated from text messages.

Withdrawn: Another report by Pakistani Telecom and IT news website Pro Pakistani says that the order will be withdrawn today, citing a source close to the PTA.  It also informs that a revised list with 10 English words/phrases and 30 words and phrases in Urdu was being finalised by the authority earlier to be communicated today but it retracted and felt that further consultations with stakeholders should be conducted before preparing the list. The website cites sources to add that the final list might be prepared by mid December.

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Internet rights activists in the country including Shahzad Ahmad have also expressed their angst over the directive and have said that they plan to to take the matter to the court if the directive was not withdrawn.

Our Take (Nikhil adds)

If you read the order (pdf), it is quite vague: a spamming message is one that which is ‘harmful, fraudulent, misleading, illegal or unsolicited’. This is exactly how governments work: as we’ve seen in case of India’s IT Rule, the rules are kept vague enough to be interpreted as deemed fit by the entity taking the decision, and thus stifling freedom of speech. What’s communication between two people is between them, and only if one wishes to raise the issue with authorities and file for defamation, should action be taken.

Filtering out words in messages or just blocking messages with ‘banned’ words isn’t the way – the kind of language that is acceptable is subject to situations and personal relationships. Still, this makes us wonder what kind of a cost would have to have been incurred by Telcos in order to put in place a system which monitors billions of messages for select words, and filters/blocks messages on the basis of the words used.

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