Pakistan's bid to block 1,700 'obscene' words in text messages shelved

Mohammad Younis Khan, a Pakistan Telecommunication Authority spokesman, said the authority will consult civil society representatives and mobile phone operators on refining the list of words.

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ISLAMABAD // Pakistan stepped back yesterday from demands that text messages containing nearly 1,700 "obscene" words should be blocked, following outrage from users and campaigners.

Last week the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) distributed a list of 1,695 words in English and Urdu to operators, giving them seven days to implement a filtering system.

But the list was met with uproar, both at the attempt to censor messages and the inclusion of many seemingly innocuous terms, among them "Jesus Christ", "lotion", "athlete's foot", "robber", "idiot", "four twenty" and "harder".

Yesterday, the PTA spokesman, Mohammad Younis Khan, said the authority would consult civil society representatives and mobile phone operators on refining a much shorter list of words, giving no time frame for any eventual ban.

"At the moment we are not blocking or filtering any word," Mr Khan said. "No final decision has been taken in this regard."

A PTA committee with representatives of civil society and mobile phone operators will decide on a "final list of objectionable words" which Mr Khan conceded could be only around "a dozen".

"We have no plan to block any word until and unless it is approved by that committee and it will take time to reach that decision."

A letter accompanying the list last week said filtering was legal under the Pakistan Telecommunication Act of 1996 which prohibits people from transmitting messages that are "false, fabricated, indecent or obscene".

The PTA yesterday said the November 14 list was merely "preliminary" and "advice" for operators to adopt a filtering system.

Mobile operators have already detailed their "concerns and reservations" and said they would seek further clarification from the PTA.

"Most of the words mentioned in the list are used legally," the lawyer Syed Mohammad Tayyab said. "Like 420. It is a section of the Pakistan Penal Code."

Mr Tayyab, who is also a prosecutor in terrorism cases, said the plan to block words needed to be reviewed by the courts. "The PTA policy is unjust and unfair on the face of it."