Her laptop is covered in stickers with texts such as ‘How big is your data shadow?’, ‘Right to share’ and ‘imagine a feminist internet’. Nighat Dad (34) wants to make her compatriots in Pakistan aware of the possibilities and risks of the internet. “People make themselves heard when their freedom of expression is violated, but they don’t realize the internet also poses a lot of invisible threats. Online freedom is just as important as offline freedom.” Time Magazine nominated the 34-year-old director of the Digital Rights Foundation, based in Lahore, for the title of ‘Next Generation Leader’ in celebration of her efforts to combat the online sexual intimidation of women.
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Can you still remember when you got your first cell phone?
“Yes, that was in 2004. I’d just gotten engaged to a boy, a family member, chosen by my father. I saw his photo and thought: he’s alright. But I did want to talk to the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with. So I bought a cheap cell phone with my own savings. My family wasn’t allowed to know about it, because at that time people still thought phones had a bad influence on women and girls. My fiancé and I talked a lot to each other. One day, the ring tone sounded from my bag. I’d forgotten to put it on silent. My older brother took the phone away from me, even though I was already 23 and had completed a law degree. When I was married, I was allowed to have a phone and internet.”
Despite their prenuptial phone conversations, the marriage wasn’t a success. The couple divorced after a year and a half. Meanwhile, Dad specialized in internet law and started to work on issues regarding online safety and sexual intimidation.
Now she travels around the world. “My family’s mentality has changed. My parents, they died last year, have always supported me. They never received an education themselves, but they were open-minded as far as their children were concerned.”
A free and safe internet for women, that’s what you’re fighting for now.
“Yes, Pakistani women love the internet. It gives them the freedom to exchange ideas, to say what they want, to make friends. They don’t have this freedom in their own environment. The downside is that they happily and naively share their photos and personal data with strangers. When they subsequently fall victim to blackmail or identity fraud, they don’t know what to do. They’re afraid to talk to anyone about it, because it isn’t generally socially accepted that women go online. People will think they’ve brought it upon themselves.”
What is the scale of the problem?
“I get a new case almost every day. Many of these concern women who exchange sexually charged messages and photos or have Skype conversations with men with whom they have a virtual relationship. These women don’t realize everything is recorded and saved. When they end the relationship, the man threatens to put all these videos online. These women allow themselves to be blackmailed, because their family doesn’t know they’re dating online. They’re embarrassed and think it’s their own fault.”
Do the police actually do anything when a woman reports something like that?
“There currently isn’t enough legislation to tackle the problem. Many policemen also don’t know how to handle these cases discreetly. And in a practical sense: how and where should the digital evidence be kept? So, the only solution is teaching women how to protect themselves. That’s why the Digital Rights Foundation has started an extensive campaign called ‘Hamara internet’, which is Urdu for ‘our internet’. We teach women how to shield their identity and surf the internet more safely.”
What kind of tips do you give them?
“Simple: never use the same password for all your accounts. I hear stories daily of how this goes wrong. The other day, a girl reported that all her email addresses had been hacked, and after that also her Facebook and all her other digital accounts. The hacker knew everything about her and sent obscene messages to her boss and her father. She had no idea who it was.”
In Pakistan women have lost their lives because of the internet
Are internet giants sufficiently aware of these risks?
“Facebook operates as a state with its own rules, but it has to realize that Pakistan is a conservative, closed community. A man can email around a photo of a woman, fully clothed, and say he’s had a relationship with her. And in doing so, he puts her life in danger. When I speak to people from Facebook about this during conferences, they say they’re working on it. In my opinion, they should increase their options for unauthorized behavior, so that women can safely report unwanted content and make sure it is removed quickly. Otherwise, Facebook says it’s not against their guidelines, and nothing happens.”
So, you say Facebook operates globally, but does not take due account of cultural diversity?
“Yes, in Pakistan women have lost their lives because of the internet. In 2012, a video was distributed online: it showed four women who danced at a wedding in the company of men. Those women have been sentenced to death by a tribal jury. Sometimes, the problem is a language issue. The other day, there was a scandal with female students in Peshawar. Someone had created fake online profiles with all their personal details. That was in Pashtu and Facebook did not understand the problem. These pages continued to exist, while the girls were beaten up by their family.”
What does the Pakistani government do?
“It combats excesses by outlawing all kinds of expressions on social media and on blogs. That’s the idea behind the cyber crime law about which parliament and the senate are going to vote soon .We have campaigned strongly against that law, talked to politicians and tweeted them to tell them about internet freedom and crime. Since 2015, everyone has to be registered in a national database with their fingerprints and data, as a measure in the fight against terrorism. Millions of SIM cards have been blocked. This does not prevent attacks, but it does endanger all citizens. The national database is not secure. There are so many organizations, so many people that work with it. I’ve already heard reports about people distributing false identity cards. There is no legislation for when something goes wrong with a person’s data.”
What is your message to the Dutch government?
“Western countries have to set the standard when it comes to protecting the digital freedom of their citizens. The danger is that, after the recent attacks in Europe, governments are taking more and more measures that don’t lead to extra protection, but result in censorship and interception practices instead. And then our government will say: ‘when Western, democratic countries do it, we can do it too. Because we’re also facing a terrorist threat here’.”
That leads us to the question of whether you prefer internet freedom and privacy to protection against terrorism.
“When they follow you or censor certain websites, governments always claim they are protecting their citizens against terrorists, but they can never quite explain how that works exactly. Journalists and activists are often also monitored in the name of safety. That’s not only problematic for them, but also for their sources, often whistleblowers.
Can you still work under these circumstances?
“Friends say I should leave Pakistan, but I want to keep doing what I can for my country. I feel vulnerable, because I’m a single mother. I have a nine-year-old son. He goes to school and has his own friends. His life just goes on.”
How do you raise your son with the internet?
“He uses my tablet, but he’s only allowed on it when I’m near. He loves animals, so he’s always searching for dogs, sheep and goats. I tell him what to watch out for in order to stay safe. Parents often give their children their tablet or smart phone to keep them busy, but as a parent you should watch over their shoulder. Although my son recently said to me: “You shouldn’t spy on me, that’s what you always say’.”