Digital rights are not a very commonly known section of the human rights issues – especially in the South Asian context. The masses are unaware of the effects that their presence in online spaces can have and are often oblivious of the crimes they commit while being in digital spaces. Education regarding digital rights and privacy is in a very nascent phase right now in the South Asian countries – particularly in countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan etc. Though there are organizations working to raise awareness regarding privacy and digital rights and responsibilities, the number is limited and the burden is overwhelming.
However, there are still organizations and people out there who are working to make digital spaces safer for the masses – especially women. In this regard, Digital Rights Foundation or DRF, headed by the Tulip Human Rights Award winner 2016, Nighat Dad, is a one of its kind organization in Pakistan which is working towards the digital rights in the country. DRF is striving hard to raise awareness regarding privacy and digital rights in Pakistan and has been actively involved in various initiatives. Under the same agenda, DRF recently held two national conferences in Pakistan to talk about different digital rights phenomena; the newly introduced cybercrime law in Pakistan, safety of women in online spaces, privacy rights, surveillance issues, data protection etc.
Privacy in the Digital Age
The first conference in the series, “Privacy in the Digital Age” was the third annual conference on privacy and was held on November 24th 2016 at the Islamabad Hotel. The main agenda of the conference was to discuss about privacy in online spaces, surveillance, the cybercrime bill, online safety etc. The conference was divided into three panel discussions – each dedicated to a different section on privacy and data protection. The first panel discussion was about “Data Blind Spots – Why Pakistan needs Data Protection Laws.” The panel was moderated by DRF’s founder, Nighat Dad and the members included lawyer Angbeen Mirza, Senator Farhatullah Babar, Courting the Law founder Taimur Malik, Digital Rights Foundation’s Shmyla Khan and IT expert Salman Ansari.
During the discussion in the first session, the need for data protection laws was highlighted. The futility of the existing data protection laws was emphasized and the absolute necessity to implement laws was established. Senator Farhatullah Babar added that the society as a whole takes sadistic pleasure in invading the privacy of others and emphasized that the society requires a long drawn education regarding data protection, surveillance and privacy rights to become better online citizens.
The second part of the session was focused on ‘Holding Telecom Companies Accountable – How private is your data?’ This panel discussion was moderated by Usama Khilji and the speakers on the panel included Security Expert Arzak Khan, DRF’s Adnan Chaudhry, Cyber Security Professional Mubashar Sargana, Express Tribune’s Gibran Ashraf, DRF’s Shmyla Khan, Nasir (IT Ministry) and DRF’s Nighat Dad. The discussion in this part of the session was focused on how telecom companies breach the privacy rights of citizens and why it is important to take proper measures to make the privacy policies more effective. DRF also shared its researches on the discourse of telecom companies and how the users of technology are so often oblivious to the breach of their privacy.
The third and last part of the conference was dedicated to ‘Gendered Surveillance – Targeting Women Journalists.’ The panel discussion was moderated by Sadaf Khan of Media Matters for Democracy and the speakers included Open Founation Soceity’s Kashif Ysinzada, Neo TV’s Special Correspondent Iffat Hassan Rizvi, Dawn’s Editor Hamna Zubair, and DRF’s Gender and Tech Coordinator, Luavut Zahid. The discussion focused on the privacy and surveillance issues faced by female journalists in Pakistan. The speakers narrated their own personal experiences of gender-based surveillance and targeting and spoke on the way forward from this. DRF also shared their upcoming research report on surveillance faced by female journalists.
This conference concluded on the note to bring some sense of accountability to the telecom companies regarding surveillance and data protection and to raise awareness regarding privacy rights and conduct in digital spaces.
#HamaraInternet – Ending Online Violence Against Women
The second conference ‘Hamara Internet – Ending Online Violence against Women‘ was held on November 28th, 2016 at the same venue. The agenda of this conference was to highlight the online harassment that women in Pakistan go through and to emphasize the effects of this abuse on the victim. Under the same agenda, DRF also launched the cyber harassment helpline in the conference. The Hamara Internet conference was sectioned into three panel discussions. The first session was moderated by DRF’s Gender and Tech Coordinator, Luavat Zahid and the speakers included Ufna Amir from Internet Society, Tooba Syed, an AWP Political Worker, Girls at Dhabas’ Yusra Amjad and Educator and Activist, Zoya Rehman.
The session held discussion regarding online harassment with the speakers narrating personal accounts of harassment faced on different platforms. They further spoke about why it is important to call out online harassers and how to reclaim your online space to raise your voice and shed light on every such issue. Tooba Syed of the Awami Workers Party talked about the deep –rooted patriarchy in the society and how that reflects in online platform, “If a woman is opinionated, she will face backlash.” She added, “You don’t have to concede space. It is normal for our society to have a woman who is vocal about her rights. But women have to organize themselves if they want to succeed in reclaiming their space.” Adding to this, Yusra Amjad of Girls at Dhaba said, “Online space impacts the offline space dichotomy.”
Zoya Rehman emphasized on the oblivion on the part of women facing online harassment and said that women are still not able to comprehend the nature of harassment in online spaces. She said, “Women are taught to remain silent. But we should have the courage to speak. We must realize that harassment is a reality, whether offline or online.” Ufna Amir of the Internet Society shed more light on this matter and highlighted the cause of this oblivion, “Why are we asking for rights when we aren’t even participating? If one wants to claim one’s digital rights, one needs to participate.”
The second panel discussion was focused on ‘Online Harassment of Women – When Honor Turns to Murder in Digital Spaces.’ This panel was moderated by Shumaila Jaffery from BBC and the members of the panel included DRF’s Nighat Dad, filmmaker and journalist, Haseeb Khuwaja, founder of Forum for Digital Initiatives, Uzma Yaqoob, activist and journalist, Sana Ejaz and director Pakistan Feminist Watch, Nabiha Mehar Sheikh. The discussion in this panel reflected on the death of social media star, Qandeel Baloch and talked about how her murder was directly influenced by the trolling and bashing she received on social media. Speaking on the matter, Nighat Dad said, “Internet gave her (Qandeel) the space to reclaim her body and sexuality. She was one of those women who do not use the standards set by the society.” She further added, “But we all know what happened to her. We all know what happens to those women who are vocal about their rights in Pakistan. Qandeel’s murder shows the hypocrisy of our mainstream and social media.”
She talked about how internet is so often used to silence women in the Pakistani society who are trying to break the mold, “By silencing Qandeel, an indirect message was conveyed to those female who are fighting to claim their sexuality.” She also regretfully mentioned how the people in Pakistan are so oblivious and unaware about their digital rights and the responsibilities that they carry as digital citizen, “In Pakistan, people do not even know about their digital rights. However, several international bodies are working to ensure that web literature is made a part of school curriculum.”
Nabiha from Pakistan Feminist Watch raised an importance point and held the mainstream media responsible for inciting her brother to kill her in the name of honor. She said, “Nobody cared about the fact that Qandeel Baloch was Fauzia Azeem. We must stop blaming the victim.” Sana Ejaz, an activist and journalist narrated personal accounts of harassments that she faced in online and ofline spaces and how she managed to combat them. “Many families don’t even allow their females to access technology. But if a woman, somehow, manages to get access to social media then there’s a greater change she’ll get cyber bullied,” she said. “Culture is dynamic for men, but static for women.”
Haseeb Khuwaja, a journalist and filmmaker emphasized on the need to implement laws instead of formulating new ones. He highlighted the fact that Pakistan is one of the countries where laws are in abundance but implementation is scarce. Uzma Yaqoob added to the discussion by pointing out the grass-root problems in the society. She called for reforms in the mindsets of people and the education system. “We need to make sure that we trace the source of violence so that action can be taken from the grass-roots.” She added, “Digital space is increasing for everybody. We need to understand that marginalized communities also have the right to access technology. Many people have embraced their sexuality through social media.”
The last panel discussion to conclude the conference, ‘The Way Forward: Solutions and Tools against Online Harassment,’ was dedicated to discuss solutions and remedies to the existing cyber-related problems faced by women. Effective ways to combat online violence against women were discussed. The speakers for this session included UN Women Country Director, Jamshed Kazi, Rozan’s senior trainer and psychologist, Meerab Lodhi, DRF’s Nighat Dad, Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of Punjab Commission on Status of Women, student and activist, Eman Suleman, Political worker and activist, Shazia Ahmed Langove and DRF’s Helpline lead and lawyer, Shmyla Khan.
Shmyla initiated the discussion by highlighting the fact that there was previously no helpline or platform to help the victims of online harassment and spoke about DRF’s initiative to launch a helpline for this cause. “As of now, no such helpline is available in Pakistan that tackles cyber bullying. We felt that there was a need to develop an organization that works on digital issues. DRF was the first step. Now, under its umbrella, we have launched the helpline which is the next step to prevent the increasing number of online harassment cases,” said Shmyla.
Nighat suggested that there is a need to bridge together the helplines that already exist to help provide maximum guidance and support to the victims of online harassment. She said, “We have learnt a lot from FIA’s cybercrime wing, and we need to make sure that our network is strengthened so that the complaints are effectively redressed.” Rozan’s Meerab Lodhi added to the discussion by explaining the services provided by Rozan and how support is extended to victims of cybercrimes who have been affected by them on a psychological level. She said, “We have to capacitate running and emerging helplines.” She also mentioned the need to make the callers comfortable and ensure them that they are being understood, “We must not give an impression to a victim that we aren’t able to understand her psychological state. We must not create dependency.”
Eman Suleman narrated her personal account of online harassment and how that left her traumatized mentally and shed light to the unfortunate reality of isolation when something like this happens, “Online harassment is scary because it traumatizes you. Any person going through this phase needs emotional guidance the most. At times, even your loved ones leave you.”
UN Women Country Director, Jamshed Kazi praised the efforts of DRF for their work in the field of digital rights and spoke on how damaging the cyber harassment against women can be, he said, “Abuse is abuse, no matter how you slice it and, online harassment is a ticking time bomb.” He added, “The United Nations released a report on cyber violence, which revealed that women face harassment more than men. By harassing women online, you are undermining their economic productivity.” The session was also attended by a representative of Dutch Embassy who awarded Nighat Dad with the Tulips Human Rights Award 2016. He concluded the session by appreciating the efforts of Nighat and DRF and extended the congratulatory messages of the Dutch government.
The helpline was softly launched during this conference and the contact number on which victims can connect with DRF’s team was also told. The speakers on the panels emphasized on the need to educate the masses from a basic level and debunk the stereotypes prevalent in the society and also urged the government to take necessary steps to put an end to violence against women in online spaces.