Nighat Dad - The Superwoman Protecting Pakistanis Digital Rights

Nighat Dad - The Superwoman Protecting Pakistanis Digital Rights
Digital spaces are now ubiquitous in our lives, but we rarely think about our own digital rights and as the line between online and offline blurs, it’s important that internet users in Pakistan start taking issues such as privacy, online harassment and trolling a lot more seriously. One such defender of our rights online is lawyer and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad who had the foresight to start working on these issues almost a decade ago. We speak to her about what the internet landscape looks like in Pakistan and what the future holds.

Nighat you’re a lawyer by trade and you started the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in 2012 long before anyone in Pakistan had any idea what digital rights are. What made you start working on this issue and why did you start the DRF?

Back in 2010, I could see that the digital realm was the future, not only for Pakistan, but across the world. However, I was working in a male-dominated space where I wasn’t being taken seriously, so I thought of creating my own organization that would be female-led and that would be focusing and specializing in digital laws and rights. Also, I wanted to work on cyber issues from a legal and policy perspective and through the lens of gender, which was missing earlier on, again since men were dominating the legal spaces. Now, in 2020, I can say that I achieved what I set out to do with regards to having a powerful team, made up of strong women leaders and who have been shining a light on an important issue of digital rights and brought it to the mainstream discussion.

When we talk about ‘digital rights’ what exactly are we talking about? What rights does a citizen have on the internet and digital spaces?

All of us are users on the internet, and we use that public space. Even though that public space isn’t ‘real’, we still need protections there, and safeguards to protect our fundamental human rights, this goes from our freedom of speech online, to the rights we have over our ideas and opinions that we express online.

Internet penetration has increased in Pakistan over the years and more and more people have access, what are some of the problems that people face that makes them come to the DRF for help?

A lot of people come to us with issues regarding blackmail or Non-Consensual Use of Images (NCUI), which as the name suggests, is when private photos of a person are shared without prior permission. People are usually unaware that these things are considered crime in Pakistan or are simply using the internet to bring harm to others.  Another common issue we see is that of hacking, especially of people’s Facebook and WhatsApp accounts.

The global pandemic means that a lot more people are working from home, children are doing online classes. What unique set of problems has COVID-19 brought with it?

As you rightly pointed out earlier, internet penetration in Pakistan is increasing, however, this does not mean that internet penetration is high in Pakistan. What COVID-19 showed all of us is how the internet actually doesn’t reach a lot of people in the country.  So, people who belong to certain regions really couldn’t ‘go online, or digital’ as easily as we in the cities could.  Along with that, a lot of schools and workplaces were simply just not ready to go fully digital, or did not have the resources to make that possible. Also, a lot of households in Pakistan only have one or two digital devices, which meant that these devices were strained when entire families were home and relied on these devices for income as well as schooling.

How concerned should an average user of the internet in Pakistan be concerned about privacy and digital rights?

 When it comes to all the international indicators of digital and online rights and freedoms, Pakistan ranks pretty low. This should be a cause of concern for all Pakistanis. The worst thing we can do right now is be indifferent because these changes in the digital realm do not affect us, yet. Indifference will only lead to a worsening situation, and when we finally act, it might be too little, too late. The average internet user in Pakistan needs to make themselves aware of the issues that our digital spaces face and learn about how these issues affect them.

How would you characterise the state of internet access and freedoms in Pakistan? What are some of the issues that we should be paying attention to?

Firstly, internet access in Pakistan is not equal. Less developed areas do not have a stable internet access, and some areas have no access at all. Urban centres is where internet access is concentrated. Additionally, according to multiple studies, women in Pakistan are less likely to have internet access than men. Our digital divide runs across geographic lines, gender lines, and economic lines too.  Earlier this year, the Government passed a law called ‘The Online (Harm) Rules’, which gave the state immense power over censorship online, content moderation as well as power over all data and information regarding Pakistani citizens. We, as Civil Society, were able to get that law denotified however, we fear a new version of this law in upcoming and it might just be as bad as the first issue.


Do you work with the government on some of these related issues? There is a fine line between policing hate speech and other such incendiary content and censorship. Where do you think governments need to draw this line and how free can the internet really be?

We do work with the government as much as possible, or as much is allowed. We do continuously send our recommendations, concerns, and our policy briefs to the relevant government department. We also work with the FIA to train their officers in gender sensitisation since they deal with cases of cyber harassment.  Free Speech is dependent on the condition that the speech does not hurt another community, especially one that is a minority. Once speech crosses that line of inciting violence against particular communities, it is hate speech, and in this country hate speech is very clear to see. Blocking, preventing, and hiding such speech in online platforms is not censorship, it is acting against hate speech. Ensuring a free internet means ensuring that there is freedom of speech without there being incitement of violence or derogatory comments.

Recently we saw some of our top female journalists come out with a statement against online harassment. Do you think that the internet is a more dangerous place for women?

Absolutely. The internet is a much dangerous place for women in Pakistan. Women disproportionately face more harassment and threats online than men do in Pakistan. Women are targets for the ‘moral police’ and for those who are fiercely nationalistic and political. Everyday women are targeted over the clothes they wear or just the pictures they post online. Women in the public eye, like journalists, are targeted constantly over the reports and news headlines they break. They are called all sorts of names and their lives are routinely put in danger.

You’ve recently joined the new global independent Oversight Board for Facebook and Instagram. What does that entail and what are the issues that you and other members of this board would be looking at?

The Oversight Board, comprising independent Members from around the world, makes binding decisions on what content Facebook and Instagram should allow or remove, based on respect for freedom of expression and human rights. Now Facebook and Instagram users will have the ability to refer content appeals to the Board.

Initially, the Board will focus on cases in which users have had individual pieces of content removed. We are working with Facebook to add the functionality for users to appeal content that remains on the platform, and we expect this in the coming months; the Board is committed to having this added as quickly as possible.

Facebook can also now ask the Board to review its decisions to remove or restore content. In addition to now being able to accept cases, the Board will also have the power to recommend changes to Facebook’s Community Standards alongside its decisions. Since being named to the Oversight Board, Members have been working to build a process for hearing and deciding cases that is thorough, principled and globally effective.

 What advice would you give to parents, specifically, about how to ensure that their children are using the internet safely?

The biggest thing would be that parents do not try to hide the internet from their children. Include your children in conversations about the internet and be open with them too. Make them feel comfortable to come to you if they face issues. Don’t make the internet seem like a taboo thing, because then, if anything does go wrong, they might not come to you. Also try to exemplify ‘best internet behavior’ yourself so your children can see how to best behave online.

What advice can you give to people about how to use the internet safely and also to make sure that their digital rights are safeguarded?

The most important thing to do is to constantly change your passwords and to enable two factor authentication on your accounts, like Gmail and Facebook. Also, do not share information like your address, or contact information online. Continuously check your social media settings to make sure that these platforms aren’t using your data without you knowing it. It takes a little time but you must always do a deep run-through of your socials and their settings.

Recently there have been a lot of phishing attacks, which is where ‘bad’ links are used to get your personal information as well as access to your various online accounts. Therefore, do not open links you get from unknown sources, and also verify links either by searching online about them, or, if you know the sender, verifying with them why they sent you a certain link or email.

This question isn’t related to digital rights, per se but how do you manage your screen time and online time? We’re constantly being told to get off our phones and try to reduce how much use them. I’m sure that so much of what you do requires you to be using a computer or a phone, how do you manage to shut off when you need to?

I wish I had this answer myself, too. That being said, I recently have begun drawing boundaries, especially on the weekends, when I want to spend time with my family. I also have learned the important skill of saying ‘no’. I know that I am in a privileged position to say no, because two years back I was not in this position. I have built enough of name for myself and for DRF, and have worked hard enough to be able to turn down opportunities that maybe don’t serve me all too well and also saying no to establish a healthy work-life environment. I am surrounded by incredibly team talented at DRF and also my fellow digital rights activists who can take my place. The important thing is that the cause we’re working for is adequately represented. It shouldn’t matter if I take a few days off. I come first!







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