Pakistan’s texting censorship plan backfires

Their initiative to label 1,695 English and Urdu words as too obscene to use in messages was met with a vocal uproar and they’ve since backed off — a bit. “Jesus Christ” were two words they hoped to ban, but for whatever reason, they also wanted people to stop sending these words: “lotion”, “athlete’s foot”, “robber”, “idiot”, “four twenty” and “harder”.

On Tuesday, PTA spokesman Mohammad Younis Khan told AFP the authority would consult civil society representatives and mobile phone operators on refining a much shorter list of words, giving no timeframe for any eventual ban.

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

A PTA committee with representatives of civil society and mobile phone operators will decide on a “final list of objectionable words” which 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,” he added.

A campaign group called Bytes for All was willing to take the matter to court if necessary and lawyer Syed Mohammad Tayyab brings up the notion of keeping things in context. “Most of the words mentioned in the list are used legally,” he’s quoted as saying. Weird to think there’d be a way to talk illegally about athlete’s foot but whatever. Censorship needs to be challenged whenever a group or government tries to implement it. I know it’s about trying to control content and information, and control the people who’d have access to that content and information, but it doesn’t work. Not in the long run. Making it difficult to communicate an idea doesn’t kill the idea. There will always be people who’ll find a way to work around the restrictions and get the word out. I think these kind of tactics just create in people more desire to rebel.

Another censorship/rebellion story since I’m on the topic: Jeff Crawford, an artist in Fredericton, New Brunswick, had hung a piece at City Hall that was a bit too risqué for the intended audience, supposedly. It was photo of a nude woman reclining in a stream with her breast partially visible. City officials took it down.

“We received a few complaints,” said Angela Watson, cultural development officer for the city.

“And we have a few guidelines where we don’t display artwork that might be offensive to some age groups, some cultures,” she said, so “we thought that we should remove it.”

City officials asked Crawford to submit a different piece of work.

“One sentence that really sticks in my mind is, ‘Do you have anything non-naked to display?’ And that got my blood boiling, pretty quick,” he recalled.

Then Crawford had what he calls a “light bulb moment.”

He created a pixelated version of the image to hang there instead so people with the right technology could snap a picture of the “abstract art” (aka Quick Response Code) and view the original image in the privacy of their own phone.

city officials soon cracked the code.

“It was interesting,” said Watson. “It was very clever. Very clever.

“If someone came around the corner and saw a QR code, that’s not going to bother them,” she said.

So the piece will remain on display.

Meanwhile, Watson said she’s considering writing some guidelines about what type of work qualifies for the space.

It seems like some people only think about guidelines after they realize others aren’t as namby-pamby as they are. Then again, nude art seems like something better off displayed as an art gallery installation, not a conversation piece in a government building. I think it’s fair to ask, what was Crawford thinking? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with City Hall officials saying the piece was inappropriate for that location. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his crafty solution, either. If people snap the QR and get a culture shock, it’ll be their own fault for snapping it in the first place. The price paid for curiosity.

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