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The work of activist and lawyer Nighat Dad embodies the digital rights dichotomy facing Pakistan and many other developing countries.

Rapidly expanding internet access is empowering people to express themselves openly, seek out new information, and otherwise create opportunities. Yet, with these gains have come troubling developments, including online harassment, a lack of awareness among users of their digital rights, and increasingly stringent cyber security laws. This adds up, Dad and other activists argue, to a proliferation of harassment, an abuse of power, and a trampling of human rights.

Dad, a lawyer, founded the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in 2012 to defend digital rights, with a particular focus on protecting women and girls and other marginalized groups on social media.

Among the foundation’s many accomplishments is Hamara Internet (meaning “Our Internet”), a project that holds digital security training workshops across Pakistan to promote the right of citizens to use the internet free from harassment, surveillance, or other digital threats. Late last year, DRF launched Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline, which provides confidential and free support to victims of online harassment.

The issue of online harassment, especially targeting women, is a significant one in Pakistan, where women seeking to participate in public life — ranging from the pursuit of post-secondary education, work as a journalist, or the use of social media, among others — can face significant hurdles, both offline and online.

Online harassment is a global issue as well. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Internet users worldwide between the ages of 18 and 29 had been the target of online harassment, with young women facing an even higher rate of harassment.

Dad is also among the leading voices against Pakistan’s controversial Prevention of Electronic Cybercrimes Act (PECA). The act, passed in August 2016, has been criticized for overstepping the need for regulation of the internet to grant the Pakistani government wide-ranging and vague powers over the internet and citizens’ use of it. Critics argue that the law is vulnerable to abuse that would threaten genuine political speech and that grants the government powers to control online information and track users’ data, among other concerns.

Her work on these issues earned Dad one of the world’s most prestigious human rights awards, the Human Rights Tulip, in late 2016. The annual prize is awarded by the Dutch government to human rights defenders who take innovative approaches to promoting human rights.

“Human rights defenders are modern-day heroes,” Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said in the prize announcement. “Despite the many threats she has received, Nighat Dad continues to fight to improve adherence to human rights in Pakistan in a unique and innovative way. Ms Dad is a pioneer who is working to remove everyday obstacles to internet access, especially those that affect women.”

The award adds to the accolades Dad has received for her work, including the Atlantic Council Freedom Award earlier in 2016 and being placed on Time magazine’s Next Generation Leaders list in 2015.

Dad’s foundation has received support through Privacy International’s privacy and development network, which was initiated with funding support from IDRC. IDRC support allowed Privacy International to facilitate and mentor a regional network in Asia that grew into a global research network of thought leaders and policy activists, like Dad, who engage in the area of digital privacy and development. The network also promotes the use of evidence by policymakers and other stakeholders.

IDRC recently interviewed Dad about her work, the issues she is addressing in Pakistan, and the benefit of tapping into a global network of like-minded activists.

IDRC: What does receiving the Human Rights Tulip award mean for you and your work?

Nighat Dad (ND): Receiving the Human Rights Tulip award is a validation that not only recognizes how vital our work is, but that harassment is a human rights matter, one that affects women and other groups the world over. This award means that the trust and hard work that goes into Hamara Internet is validated, with the work that myself and my team carry out on behalf of others being heard loud and clear.

IDRC: How does winning this award — as well as the Atlantic Council Freedom Award — help bring attention/support within Pakistan to the issues you are focused on?

ND: International recognition like these awards makes people sit up and pay attention. It highlights that serious work and advocacy movements are not just being carried out in the West, but in what is often referred to as the Global South. Winning these awards also indicates that homegrown initiatives that take into account the realities on the ground are possible, and can be replicated elsewhere. Winning the Tulip award for what is a global human rights issue brings home that harassment is a reality in Pakistan, and one that cannot and should not be ignored.

IDRC: What does the passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) say about the state of digital governance in Pakistan?

ND: The passage of the PECA, in theory, tells us that the Government of Pakistan is now aware that cybercrime and cyber terrorism must be taken seriously, and that there must be legal frameworks in place.

But what the passage of the PECA tells us about digital governance is that the government is still going about it the wrong way. Draconian and punitive measures within the PECA are in some cases disproportionate to the acts they describe. The language is overly broad, and indicates that the government is not taking onboard the concerns of civil society stakeholders. It tells us that the government’s answer to tackling digital terrorism is to censor and block, and to give “authorized officers” very broad and reaching powers to do so, without taking onboard concerns about digital privacy, safety, and freedom of speech online.

IDRC: Is the passage of PECA a case, as some have said, of regulations being created before rights have been ensured? If so, why is this happening? What will it take to reverse this order?

ND: The government purports to defend and ensure that rights are respected. For example, privacy is a constitutional right. At the same time, however, there are amendments and provisions within that same document that give exceptions to the armed forces and agencies if so required. The Cold War, Pakistan’s decades of military rule, and the War on Terror have given national security a greater focus than rights, even though protest and free expression are also part of Pakistan’s heritage. These work in tandem with a growing social conservatism that prizes whatever form of stability is promised.

Greater awareness, and explaining how people are personally impacted by losses of rights, can go some way towards setting things on the right path. What is needed, however, is greater courage on the part of policymakers and those in the public eye in calling for the respect of human rights, as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

IDRC: To what extent is legislation that risks infringing on digital and human rights constructed precisely to do so rather than infringing on rights as a result of a lack of technical awareness on the part of policymakers?

ND: Good question. National security has always been a good excuse for increasing surveillance at the cost of human rights. And there are those that believe that the only way to protect citizens is to monitor them, even if it means that they have no privacy, and no assurance that they will not be arrested for saying the “wrong” thing. If this is the case, however, then what exactly are lawmakers protecting people from?

Pakistan may have come into being in 1947, but it has been shaped by the Cold War. The policymakers and agencies that govern and dictate law in Pakistan still view the state of human rights — and now digital rights — through that prism. Human rights organizations are often referred to as troublemakers in public by lawmakers, as well as in government sessions that we are allowed to sit in on. It says something, for example, that there is no legislation that explicitly protects data and personal information in Pakistan, even though privacy is a constitutional right.

IDRC: How has your involvement in and support from the Privacy International privacy and development network contributed to the work you are doing?

ND: Being involved with the Privacy International network ensures that we’re able to learn and share valuable lessons from colleagues in other countries who are facing similar risks and challenges. It also means that we have access to the resources and skills of Privacy International and other partners, as well as advice.

IDRC: What is the biggest need you see in the work you are doing?

ND: There a number of needs that are required, as it were: Greater funding for the sector in general; greater awareness of the real-world consequences of loss of privacy and freedom of expression of rights; stronger legislative frameworks that proactively protect data privacy and freedom of expression online.

IDRC: Between building individual knowledge and awareness and focusing on change at the policy level, are both equally great needs?

ND: These need to be approached and worked upon in tandem. Individual knowledge and awareness building is important to ensure that there is a ground-level grassroots understanding of the concepts behind privacy, gendered digital and offline violence, and freedom of expression.

Our Hamara Internet campaign has driven home just how little public understanding or awareness of these concepts there is, even by those that are being targeted by online harassment. The digital security training sessions have also received tremendous feedback — not only are hundreds of women in higher education eager to learn that gendered online harassment is real and not imagined, but they are eager to acquire the skills necessary to fight it head-on.

What is required is a strong legal framework that enshrines data protection into law. As of the time of this interview, Pakistan does not have an explicit data protection law, but it has proactive and holistic legislative policy measures that protect rights and provide victims of harassment with effective reporting mechanisms and legal recourse.

Lastly, the work that DRF undertakes is difficult, made worse by increasing social and political instability. Not only are there ever greater fears of potential terrorist attacks, but progressive activists feel that they are under attack. 2017 has brought with it the disappearance of at least five activists who were active on social media, and were calling for progressive discourse. As a result, activists have had to be more careful about the direction that their work takes them, and they have had to adjust the manner in which they communicate with, and fight on behalf of, vulnerable communities. International groups and partners need to highlight this, and press the Government of Pakistan to work for a progressive and open Pakistan, and to respect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression that are vital in any democracy.

Top image: Internet Society / Panos Pictures, Ayesha Vellani