Pakistan Tries to Redefine What Citizens Can and Can’t Text to Each Other

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There’s little to make you feel as out of touch with what’s happening with “the kids today” as discovering that there are all manner of words that apparently have double meanings that you were entirely unaware of. For example, “Kmart.” Or “hobo.” Or “murder.” All of which were contained on a list of obscene words that the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority recently attempted to have banned from text messaging within the country.

Cell phone providers were given the list on November 14 by the PTA, with a request that they agree to censor every word contained therein starting November 21. Legal justification for the request was given in the form of the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunication Act, which prohibits transmission of “false, fabricated, indecent or obscene” messages, although many were surprised to see that applied to the private transmission of text messages between two parties.

(MORE: How the Internet Evolves to Overcome Censorship)

This isn’t the first time that Pakistan has made controversial moves curbing its citizens’ freedom of speech. In 2008, YouTube access was temporarily blocked for a number of hours, and two years later, Facebook met with the same fate for almost two weeks, in both cases because of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. The outcry against the latter was such that the country went on to temporarily restrict access to hundreds of additional websites as a result.

As you might expect from a list containing almost 1,700 “obscene” words, there’s an unusual definition of obscenity being used to build it. The list has been leaked online, and turns out to include not only the three apparently benign words mentioned above, but also such seemingly innocent terms as “athletes foot,” “drunk” and, in what can only be considered an upset for Canadian Pakistanis, “hoser.” (A friendly warning: If you’d like to see the list, it’s here, but if you’re sensitive about language, it’s packing some zingers.) Unsurprisingly, the leaked list quickly hit social media and became a Twitter hashtag filled with jokes and parody suggestions (check out #PTAbannedlist for commentary).

The request was met with uproar from civil rights groups, with the Bytes For All group calling it “a new, ruthless wave of moral policing” and promising to challenge the policy in court if necessary. Lawyer Syed Mohammad Tayyab told the Associated Press that that wasn’t a battle that the PTA wanted to face: “Most of the words mentioned in the list are used legally… The PTA policy is unjust and unfair on the face of it. It needs judicial review.” Cell providers had more practical reason to challenge the request, believing that initiating the kind of censorship requested might cause technical problems or widescale disruption to service.

As a result, the PTA backed down–partially. Earlier this week, it was announced that the authority was removing the timeframe for the ban, and would now consult both cell phone operators and civil society representatives to refine the list of forbidden words. “At the moment we are not blocking or filtering any word. No final decision has been taken in this regard,” said PTA spokesman Mohamman Younis Khan. “We have no plan to block any word until it is approved by that committee [of PTA members, cell operators and civil society representatives] and it will take time to reach that decision.” The final list of banned words, Khan estimated, could be as small as “a dozen.” A victory for free speech? Almost, but let’s wait and see how small the final list is, and whether or not it contains names of supermarket chains and skin conditions, before celebrating too much.

MORE: Facebook and Twitter Will Say No to Social Media Blocking in Wake of Riots

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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