Creating Technology for Social Change

Cyber Harassment in the Global South: Nighat Dad at the Berkman Klein Center

What kinds of online harassment do women in Pakistan face, and what can we learn from Pakistan for our efforts to protect people around the world?

(this liveblog was written with Mariel García M)

Last week at the Berkman Klein Center, we were privileged to hear from Nighat Dad, a lawyer and global leader on human rights and the internet. Nighat is the founder of Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation, a research based advocacy NGO that focuses on the role of ICTs to support human rights, democratic processes, and digital governance. Last year, Nighat started Pakistan’s first hotline for people experiencing online harassment.

Nighat Dat Speaks at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, May 2017

Online harassment is a global issue, says Nighat. The Digital Rights Foundation has been working to advance digital rights in Pakistan, where religion plays an important role in everyone’s lives, and where the culture has deep patriarchal norms. While these are global issues, some nuances in Pakistan make it more complex in that country.

In Pakistan, it’s hard for women in conservative parts of the country to get online in the first place. In the conservative parts of Pakistan, women are hardly allowed to access social media or online spaces. According to society, conservative families and wider cultural norms do not consider internet access to be for women. So when women face online harassment, they can’t talk about it, because they’re often accessing the internet without the knowledge of male members of their families. They can’t turn to their families when they get stalked, blackmailed, or face threats.

Despite the challenges that women face, many Pakistani women have found the courage to speak up. In 2016, Pakistan passed a Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in the name of protecting women against online blackmailing and harassment. This often happens in the global south, where the protection of citizens, especially women and daughters becomes the reason for developing massive powers to surveil, ban, and censor content. Sections of these laws in Pakistan do offer some legal remedies to people who face harassment online, even if the laws also introduce these massive powers.

Nighat tells us the story of a Qandeel Baloch, one of the first Pakistani women to reclaim their sexuality openly online. Using a pseudonym, she attracted a massive following of people, many of whom harassed her. Then a blogger found her legal identity and published articles about that identity. When television channels created shows about her and shamed her publicly, it was seen as a shame upon her small village. Her brother responded by killing her in the name of defending the family honor. The case is still being processed.

When many people in Pakistan agreed that this murder was justified, Pakistani feminist activists resisted this narrative. In the resulting conversation, many of those advocates were harassed and threatened as well, including Nighat. Last year, women who had been facing these issues pooled their knowledge and used a $5,000 grant from the Urgent Action Fund to start Pakistan’s first anonymous helpline for online harassment. They now have a year of resources. When they started the helpline, the organizers thought they might get a dozen calls a week. Instead, they received 15-20 calls per day and now plan to run the helpline 7 days a week.

Although the helpline was developed initially to support women, over a third of the calls come from men. In a patriarchal society, it can also be shameful for men to admit the threats that they face, and the anonymous helpline is able to support them as well. In some cases, men will call on behalf of women they know.

What help does the helpline provide? The Digital Rights Foundation offers people information about legal remedies, helps them understand how the law enforcement process works, offers psychological counseling, and gives advice on digital security systems. The helpline also refers people to social media platforms when relevant or points them to other helplines that support people facing domestic violence, emotional trauma, and cybercrime.

Among people who have called in, people have faced problems including fake profiles, stalking, threats, and other kinds of bullying. Facebook is the most common platform that people report. The Digital Rights Foundation has now published a report of the first four months of this helpline.

Nighat shares some of the challenges that the helpline has faced. First, law enforcement in Pakistant is under-resourced when dealing with cases of online harassment. Next, Pakistan’s law enforcement, who only have cybercrime wings in major cities, have no policies about data protection. Because these cyber crime wing offices are in major cities it is hard for victims to reach out to them if they are in villages or towns (70% of Pakistans population lives in rural areas). Without those privacy protections, women are often reluctant to report to regional police outside of cities. Since they have to report cybercrime in person, others would see them, which could put them under greater risk. According to Nighat, law enforcement engages in substantial amounts of victim blaming and lacks awareness of the cybercrime law, and judges are usually not aware of the laws–despite passing laws that purport to support women, no women have yet been supported under those laws, she says.

On the bright side, the online harassment helpline has been able to support hundreds of people, work with law enforcement to improve their handling of cases, and advocate more widely on behalf of people who face online harassment. Nighat is also encouraged to hear from so many men, who she didn’t expect to come forward as supporters and advocates on these issues.


Susan Benesch asks: why is the helpline a phone number?

Nighat: In Pakistan, toll free helplines have been a very effective way to support people on a wide range of issues. In Pakistan, people are used to calling each other, so it works well.

Susan: What kind of data do you collect from people who call, and what don’t you ask?

Nighat: We don’t ask their name, their location, or other personal information. People sometimes volunteer that information, which they record. But they’re not sure that it’s true. Maintaining trust is important– so it’s important for us to avoid asking personal details.

Question: how do you reach out to different parts of the country?

Nighat: We reached out across the country through local journalists, and we’ve appeared on television shows and radio shows that have a broad reach. We also advertise on Facebook.

In one case, the helpline heard from a man who called on behalf of his sister. “I don’t want my family to kill my sister, and she’s being blackmailed by a person who has her nudes.” I was moved to hear from a brother who was supporting his sister in this way.

Question: What do you do in that kind of situation?

Nighat: In these urgent cases, we are sometime able to reach out to platforms who can intervene. In other cases where there is a risk of an honor killing or someone who might be killed by her family, regional law enforcement treat that issue sensitively.

Question: What risks do you face from this work?

Answer; In one case, we received a report from someone who said they had a blasphemy to report. In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy is death. The helpline said they don’t do this work, but they encouraged him to report it to the Pakistani telecommunications authority. This person became upset in the call. Other people are upset that the helpline offers support to women. Yet critics are rare. Even law enforcement who aren’t always happy about Nighat’s critiques, appreciate the support that the helpline offers to them.

Grace Mutung’u: In Kenya, when the government made a law about online harassment that wasn’t specific to women, it was used to bully bloggers. How do we create balanced laws that protect people without restricting people’s rights? Do think that these issues might be resolved through more traditional means?

Nighat: I don’t support the current law in Pakistan. Legal provisions that have been developed to support women are often used to limit political speech. In Pakistan, the judiciary has been saying that Facebook is evil because anyone can post anything against Islam, and they banned YouTube for years. In that context, my hopes are not high. The law is very problematic. We suggested to the government that small amendments to existing legislation might work– there are already laws in the penal code that protect women that could be edited. Instead, the government brought forward bad laws that expanded their control over the internet in the name of protecting citizens, women, and national security. We’ll wait to see how the courts develop the jurisprudence.

In Pakistan, many cases of online harassment are already handled outside of the court. The justice system is so broken that it takes years to handle a single case. Many families settle their cases outside the court because of fear of shame and protecting family honor.

Yaso: In Brazil, similar helplines were trolled by the people who engage in harassment. The service had to be dismantled. Did you suffer any kinds of attacks on your service?

Nighat: We haven’t received even one prank call. Other help lines in Pakistan told us to expect fake calls. This is surprising, and a good sign.

Mariel: In Mexico, the collective working on responses to harassment was very inspired by the Digital Rights Foundation in our work. But we struggled with the inconsistency of dealing with online platforms. The consistency of service tends to depend on who someone’s contact is and whether they slept well the night before. What have you learned about working well with them?

Nighat: One of the hardest parts of this work involves helping these companies understand how their processes and guidelines are poorly set up to support people. When we developed our report, the company responded by saying that they wanted to improve the issues. But every time people complain, companies respond that they’re looking into the problem and plan to change things soon. I feel like it will take a long time, and I’m not sure we’ll succeed. Yet small changes can make a difference, like the translation of community guidelines into Pakistani languages. When we showed them the kinds of violence that were occurring in Pakistani languages, they realized that they needed to translate their policies into languages that people would understand.

Susan Benesch: it sounds like translation needs to happen in two directions? The problems need to be translated so the company can understand the issues, and guidelines need to be translated into the languages and cultures involved. Nighat: Yes.

Susan: You mentioned blasphemy. Can you explain further?

Nighat: One month ago, a university student was killed in the name of online blasphemy by his fellow students. He was lynched until death. It’s still hard for me to talk about this issue. He had a Facebook page called “Voice of the voiceless,” where he talked about human rights, women’s rights, and animal rights. He also identified himself as a humanist. Then someone created a false profile on Facebook to spread misinformation about his views and lead others to believe that he was committing blasphemy.

Because people don’t understand how fake profiles work, and because there’s limited digital forensic capacity in the country, people can become riled up based on false information and lynch someone. Those fellow students even filmed themselves taking the action, videos which are still online. Nighat tells us about one of the videos: one of the filmmakers would kick the student, step back, film for a while, then kick his body again, until someone shot the student in the head. Using those videos, law enforcement were able to identify and arrest some of the people involved.

Nighat believes that this story may start a debate about online safety, security, protections against false profiles, and the risks that people face, especially in a society with strict norms and laws against blasphemy.

Susan: Do law enforcement understand the dangers that people face when someone creates a false profile that appears to be committing blasphemy?

Nighat: I do think they understand. These are trends that happen in Muslim countries. Social media companies are aware, even if they may not always act like it. So I continue to urge them to be vigilant and be informed.

Question: What other ideas do you have for Pakistani privacy laws?

Nighat: Our country has the world’s largest biometric database, and we have a huge project around smart cities. Just in Lahore, they are installing 8,000 CCTV cameras. Yet no one knows how the data will be used or who has access to it. If the government passes new privacy laws, I am hoping that the federal government, provincial government, and cities will have their own privacy policies. So I’m pushing at the federal level and with the Punjab government. If Punjab passes new privacy legislation, it might influence the federal government to pass similar legislation. We are also working with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard to draft a policy draft around data protection and what kind of data protection mechanism suits to Pakistan.

Crystal Nwaneri: You mentioned that you have received 500 calls in four months. What amount of harassment are you able to handle?

Nighat: We don’t have the data to answer that question. Sometimes people ask us for information without telling us their story. And many people don’t call us back to tell us that the issue was resolved.

Nathan Freitas: Is there any talk about biometric systems might help stop attacks, or should we avoid that idea?

Nighat: I don’t think we should go there. I’m worried about the biometrics that are happening in Pakistan. I was recently on TV and someone said that we could solve the problems of impersonation by linking biometrics with profiles. In many cases, people are able to find a voice online through anonymity and pseudonymity–when Qandeel Baloch’s name became widely known, that’s when she was killed.

Ellery: what should we tell Facebook to do about the issue of impersonation? The company already asks for people’s ID. How might the university student have handled this?

Nighat: I’m not sure. And that’s why we’re all here. The helpline is a very local solution. Dealing with companies is so complicated. We need to understand why those companies are there. Their main job is business and making money out of our data.