DEFAMATION, blackmail, non-consensual use of images, unsolicited contact — these are just a few of the most frequent problems complainants reached out to Digital Rights Foundation’s cyber harassment helpline for. The advocacy NGO recently published a detailed 33-page report on online harassment, breaking down the 2,781 phone calls and 134 email messages it received between December 2016 and November 2018. In these two years, DRF’s helpline received 660 Facebook-related complaints, and 220 complaints related to WhatsApp. Women constituted the majority (59pc) of callers, while several of the remaining male callers were registering complaints on behalf of women they knew. Most were young, between the ages of 21 and 25. And few were aware of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and their digital rights and responsibilities — a startling fact considering that almost one fifth of Pakistan’s population now uses the internet.
Greater access to communication technologies is viewed as a marker of progress. The internet — often touted as a tool owned by ‘nobody’ and therefore for ‘everybody’ — allows for the sharing of knowledge and information. But there’s a dark side to this freedom, and a host of unprecedented challenges to grapple with: financial fraud and scamming, identity theft and impersonation, stalking, doxxing, bullying and gender-based harassment that quickly takes on a sexual nature, etc. Cloaked in anonymity, malicious users indulge in antisocial behaviour and hate speech that are less likely to be accepted in the ‘real world’. For women in particular, the internet experience can be highly stressful and, in some cases, even dangerous. And, like other marginalised groups, this is not even accounting for the myriad barriers they encounter prior to accessing online spaces. Harassment — whether in the physical or virtual realm — is a tactic of exerting dominance and control, which pushes women and marginalised groups out of spaces they have every right to occupy. At the very least, policymakers should take necessary steps to ensure that those who navigate this space can do so in safety.