Toward a safe and open Internet in Pakistan

by Mary Meisenzahl

This post is part of an Internet Monitor blog series interviewing Internet researchers and advocacy organizations about their work and experience with Internet content control and Internet activity around the world. In this installment, IM Intern Mary Meisenzahl talks to Nighat Dad, founder of the Pakistan-based Digital Rights Foundation. Dad discusses how her organization promotes an open Internet in Pakistan, advocates for laws that will prevent cyber-harassment, and gives women in Pakistan the tools to stay safe online.

When colleagues came to Nighat Dad looking for legal remedies to the gendered violence they were experiencing and hearing about, she remembers looking into them and becoming increasingly angry when there were no obvious solutions. A lawyer by training, Dad grew interested in Internet governance, cyberspace, and the experiences of women online as she practiced law between 2007 and 2009. When she realized the lack of laws governing these areas in Pakistan, she founded the Digital Rights Foundation in 2012. Today, she is the Executive Director of the Foundation and an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center.

According to Dad, the Digital Rights Foundation’s mission all along has been to address not only Internet freedom and major digital rights issues in Pakistan, but specifically online violence against women and other vulnerable people in the country.

“Honestly, I just started looking up international practices, seeing what other countries do. Even developed countries, to my surprise, were not really addressing the issue the way that they should.” Dad found that around the world, states and law enforcement were struggling to address crimes that occur online. “In some parts of the world, like Pakistan, it wasn’t even an issue people were seriously considering.”

Dad found that the challenge for her and her team was convincing people that what happens online can be a human rights violation at all. “When someone faces harassment, stalking, things like that, that’s a form of violence, especially violence against women. That realization was a big challenge and people weren’t taking online spaces seriously.”

Pakistan has suffered frequent Internet shutdowns, while Dad and the Digital Rights Foundation have tried to show Pakistani citizens that those events are violations of their rights. According to the South Asia Press Freedom Report, the country had 17 documented shutdowns between May of 2017 and April of 2018. In a promising move for the Foundation’s mission, this year, the High Court of Islamabad ruled that ordering Internet shutdowns for national security reasons is illegal.

Leading up to Pakistan’s election on July 25, the Digital Rights Foundation partnered with Bolo Bhi to call for continued Internet accessibility during the election. In collaboration with Netblocks, the Digital Rights Foundation monitored network shutdowns in Lahore, prepared to challenge them in court if necessary. They found only one disruption report, and the Internet otherwise remained accessible during the election.

Talking about human rights violations in relation to the Internet was a particular challenge, not just with regular people in Pakistan but even human rights organizations. “My mission was that the demand for good legislation, or demand for the government to do something about this issue should come from the public or Internet users, not digital rights organizations,” Dad said.

With this mission, Dad and the Digital Rights Foundation launched Hamara Internet, which means “Our Internet.” The campaign was intended to “build a movement to promote a free and secure digital environment for women.”

“My audience was initially young women and girls but then later other communities joined. Not just young women, but trans communities, lawyers, journalists, religious minorities, and other vulnerable communities joined,” Dad said.

Although she is happy with the progress Hamara Internet has made in educating marginalized people in Pakistan about the Internet, she emphasized the need to employ multiple strategies. One of these strategies has been in policy, where the Digital Rights Foundation conducts research and pushes the government to pass legislation that will make the Internet safer for women.

The results of their activism haven’t always been successful, however. “We learned our lesson. We pushed for legislation on hate speech, stalking, and non-consensual use of intimate images. But they made the legislation that passed for themselves, with draconian provisions on mass surveillance. It was a bad legal document,” Dad said of the Prevention of Electronic Cyber Crimes Bill. Since that law passed, Dad and other representatives of the Digital Rights Foundation have brought up the need for legal data protection in Pakistan. Recently, the government released a new draft, which Dad views as a good sign. The Digital Rights Foundation is reviewing the draft now.

Beyond working to implement laws, the Foundation is also working to make sure that women and marginalized people understand how to use the laws that do exist to protect themselves. “In developing countries, they make laws but don’t do things to implement them. That’s what we were facing in the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act. They were using it for all wrong reasons, arresting dissenters and activists. When women were reaching out with complaints of harassment or stalking, law enforcement was taking a long time and women wouldn’t hear back for weeks.”

The Foundation identified this gap in the law’s enforcement, and developed the Cyber Harassment Helpline in response. “We know how much [the women calling the helpline] internalized all this patriarchy and misogyny themselves; we understand complainants are in need of urgent support, so we started the helpline.” Every day more than 10 women call the helpline, which tells them how to file a complaint, gives them digital security support, and connects them with counseling services. Dad spoke about the need to address complainants’ mental health, because of the toll that harassment and stalking can take on them.

“The helpline works well in our context and our situation, but it might not be a good strategy for other jurisdictions; this is an issue where governments and everyone are struggling to address this,” Dad said. Representatives from the Foundation make sure to mention the helpline whenever they appear on panels, radio shows, or television. Many find the helpline through online communities of women such as Facebook groups, where they might post anonymously about a problem with harassment or stalking. People tag Dad or other helpline workers, and tell the poster to call. Dad also thinks it helps their work that many helpline staffers are former recipients of their services, so they are in a unique position to support others in need.

Another solution the Digital Rights Foundation has found is trainings tailored to audiences such as journalists and women in universities. The biggest thing Dad asks of them after they attend a training session is to spread the word about the helpline and use their knowledge of digital rights to help others.

The Digital Rights Foundation also facilitates women’s participation in politics. One type of these training sessions focused on teaching women to be election observers at polling stations around the country, where they monitor voter turnout of women and note inclusivity of the station.

Dad sees her work as an extension of offline activism. “Online harassment is not an issue just related to virtual spaces. There is a strong connection with offline violence as well.” She says that the violence is no less intense online, and she has seen the effects of this in Pakistan. “We’re still living in a world where women are killed in the name of honor because of how they use technology, or social media, because they use these spaces on their own terms.”

Despite the dangers that still exist for women online and offline, Dad is optimistic about the progress that has been made so far. “I look back to 2010, and people would make fun of me, saying ‘What are digital rights? We don’t even have respect for human rights in our countries.’ But today, people talk about Internet shutdowns and harassment as violations of rights. I see a massive difference in people’s understanding of rights.

Mary Meisenzahl is the Internet Monitor intern and student journalist at Wellesley College. Her work can be found at