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Pakistan plans to filter SMS for objectionable words

The country's telecommunications regulator has instructed local operators to install filtering equipment

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has instructed telecommunications operators in the country to filter SMS (Short Message Service) messages that include words that it considers objectionable, drawing criticism from civil rights groups in the country.

"The filters infringe several basic human and fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution, and we think will end up curbing political discourse in the country," Shahzad Ahmad, country coordinator for Bytes for All, Pakistan, a human rights organization focused on Internet freedom, said on Monday.

The PTA is protecting moral values, and is doing this under an existing law that prohibits the transmission of information that is false, obscene, fabricated, or indecent, said Mohammad Younis, spokesman for the PTA, on Monday. Every country has certain moral values that it protects and abides by, he said.

A list of words to be blocked that was circulated by the PTA to the operators has come in for criticism.

PTA managed to hurt the religious feelings of many Pakistani Christians by adding 'Jesus Christ' in the banned word list, said Bytes for All. If such a thing happened in any other country, there would be an outrage already, and if it was directed, mistakenly or intentionally, towards Muslims, the outrage would be uncontrollable, it said in a statement.

Younis said the list was only a trial list around which operators could design and test their filtering systems. The actual list that will be in force after the operators have all their filtering equipment and procedures in place will be very short, with "few selected words that are commonly used as an abuse", he added. Younis said that the filters would be used to curb obscene words, and potentially other offensive content as well.

The filtering system is only an extension of existing systems that allow users to block on their own or ask the operator to block numbers that make offensive calls or send SMS messages, Younis said. The problem with those procedures is that you can only block after the offensive SMS message has been received, Younis said.

The country has no legislation under which people can be tried and penalized for using the prohibited words in SMS messages, Ahmed said. The government has instead adopted a top-down approach where the government through the operators takes control and decides what people cannot include in their SMS communications, he added. "This could be the beginning of a new wave of monitoring and surveillance," he added.

The rules come into force Monday, but this is not a deadline as operators still have to integrate the hardware and software, and test their systems, Younis said.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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