Funny how no one noticed the obvious. I admit, I joined the public hue and cry over Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) proposed text messaging ban. Bloggers went crazy. Facebook exploded with rants and expletives. Thankfully, this ban is now on hold. But last month, when the PTA had handed a list of roughly 1,600 words deemed obscene to mobile operators, asking them to implement a filtering system to block messages containing these words, something far more interesting happened.
But first, the obvious: at best, the solution did not correspond logically with the problem. The authority claimed the ban would stem the proliferation of spam, a source of frustration for cell phone users across the country. In actuality, the ban represented a new, more ruthless and invasive form of moral policing that had reared its ugly head in an unexpected way, catching even the most disillusioned off guard.
The ban hit a little too close to home for too many people. All of a sudden, the prospect of a text messaging Gestapo was overwhelming for the average cell phone user in Pakistan. This was not something you could click your tongue at in dismay or dismiss as conspiracy. Words like ‘harder,’ ‘lotion’, or ‘athlete’s foot’ could stifle your ability to communicate with your children, parents, business partners, or a friend in trouble. They are harmless words used to communicate mundane things, express frustration or describe the day-to-day.
One of the last remaining bastions of privacy was under threat. This, too, at a time when one of the indicators of progress and development measures how many people have access to life-altering technologies like cell phones, personal computers and the internet. This had the potential to make us go backwards very quickly.
Interestingly, the majority of the list consisted of words related to, about or consisting of sex, sexual acts, body parts and bodily functions. In publishing the list of words, the PTA took from real text messages and exposed a great irony: for a society that prides itself on imposing an austere form of modesty, there is an awful lot of energy being spent talking about and thinking of sex. The elephant in the room just got bigger. It popped in front of our very eyes, a thundering explosion that went unnoticed and unheard.
To be sure, the number of spam messages the average user receives is high. True, messages can be excessively raunchy and even obscene. But banning such words will not put an end to the spamming. A little wit can turn even a nursery rhyme into filth. The ban rightly invited ridicule of the authority, as well as suspicion of its problem-solving abilities. It would also continue to fan the flame it was trying to extinguish.
The PTA has subsequently announced a hold on the ban and I am now curious as to what next steps are being considered. Instead of eviscerating our right to privacy and free speech, perhaps the PTA could investigate the source and proliferation of spam and tackle the problem from that end. Rather than finding yet more ways to pummel, constrict, choke and expunge sex and, therefore, keep it at the forefront of our collective psyche, perhaps the use of some good old engineering science can turn a solution that fits. In other words, the PTA should stick to what it knows.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2011.