Digital Rights Foundation: Fighting online harassment, one call at a time

Dunya News

Nighat Dad: "There is a lot of victim blaming, that's why most victims or survivors of abuse are reluctant to contact the authorities." Photo: Panos Pictures

By Maleeha Mengal

After the murder of prominent online celebrity Qandeel Baloch last year, online rights activist Nighat Dad began working on making cyber space safe for women.

Founded by Dad, the Digital Rights Foundation established a helpline as a means to provide free consultation to callers against online harassment through a qualified support team.

The team provides specialised assistance to callers striving to help women, children, human rights defenders, and people from minority communities.

The DRF has been working hard on their helpline which officially started taking calls in December 2016.

DRF’s helpline has recently released first part of their quarterly report on the calls they’ve received on cyber harassment, adding to the shortage of data in Pakistan on online harassment.

Their Cyber Harassment Helpline’s six month report has indicated countless successful operations that has helped and guided many men and women. In the span of six months, the Helpline has received 763 complaints ranging from calls to emails (helpdesk) or through messages on their Facebook inbox.

Speaking to Dunya News, Nighat Dad talks about male callers which make the 37 percent ratio of calls. “When men call us, if it isn’t on behalf of someone else, they are usually calling because they are being blackmailed through the internet.”

 The data was taken from the total number of individual cases, making the ratio of 63:37 (female:male) callers respectively. Photo: Cyber Harassment Helpline Six Month Report/ DRF

Dad explains the term ‘sex-tortion’. “The calls we have received are based on sex-tortion. It is extortion, but blackmailing based on luring men into having online sex with someone.”

“Most of these places (websites) are of pornographic nature inviting them to have video sex. When men use their webcam, the other party on the other hand records the video of the person who accepts that invitation. Once they record the video these people start blackmailing the person.”

The black mailing continues to the extent that they threaten the person to send money, failing which they would leak the videos online.

Dad explains the reasons why people still fear reporting online harassment. “There is a lack of trust between the public at large and the authorities at the moment,” she said.

When people hear stories of how they were unsuccessful with the authorities, and that too, when they were also cracking down on social media activists, Dad said that fear of reaching out and that of the authorities getting them ‘wrong’ were major deterrents.

 There are many reasons to why women sometimes refuse to report cyber harassment. Photo: DRF

“There is a deficit of trust. It’s not just with the FIA, it’s with the entire law enforcement whether is it the police, FIA or any other authority.”

According to their report, a number of people believe that a report against online harassment would not be taken seriously or the process itself would be embarrassing.

Dad believes there is another reason for those who do not wish to get involved with the FIA due to the evidence at stake.

“If girls are getting harassed online or being blackmailed, it is mostly based on pictures or videos…sometimes they are ashamed of sharing that evidence with the law enforcement.”

And in the past, she says there have been cases when the victims were blamed. “They are asked why they shared pictures with some ‘unknown boy’ and why did they post pictures of such nature online.”

“There is a lot of victim blaming, that’s why most victims or survivors of abuse are reluctant to contact the authorities.” 

There is another kind of fear DRF has come across on their helpline, that of how their data will be used by authorities.

Dad said fears including whether their data is secure or whether it would be misused by authorities or concerns regarding their data protection policy always exist.

The numbers reaching out to the FIA has increased in the last few months, according to Dad who explains, “The helpline is not only guiding callers on how to report to FIA, but is also building trust of people in the law enforcement.”

The cybercrime helpline is trying to encourage callers to report online harassment in order to deal with crimes.

Seerat Khan, one of the outreach officers at the Digital Rights Foundation, explains they receive calls seeking help for cases other than gender based cyber harassment.

“We also receive calls from people who have received threats online and who belong to minority groups,” she said.

Depending on the nature of the case, the guidance is provided. For instance, Khan said if someone receives threat of physical violence, they refer those calls to the police.

“We have a proper referral system and we keep in touch with the law enforcement agencies. If a case like this appears, we explain it to them if it’s a minority related case.”

Khan explains that despite their limited outreach they have been receiving calls and messages through Facebook or email. While cyber harassment is one of the areas they are looking into, DRF also looks into online violence of other types, including hate speech, cases relating to financial fraud, stolen devices, and hacking of accounts or devices.

Khan says their Cyber Harassment helpline provides three sorts of assistance. Besides legal counsel, psychological aid is also provided.

“We have a therapist available on the helpline who helps people virtually on how to cope with the issues they are facing,” she said.

And lastly they also offer digital security tips on how to keep you secure online, especially if there is fear of accounts being hacked.

Confidentiality is also upheld. “Usually people who call us don’t know that we don’t store information of incoming calls nor their names. It depends on the caller whether they wish to disclose their ethnicity and belief,” she said.

“Mostly people don’t because they are afraid of exposing their identity. We never insist on asking the caller about their identity unless they feel comfortable in doing so.”

In the future, they plan to collaborate with law firms to provide consultation and legal aid while also aiming to strengthen partnerships with government agencies and departments.