I was recently fortunate enough to attend the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2010 meetings in Vilnius, Lithuania. The IGF is an international body, set up by the United Nations (UN) to address global issues of governance in the online world. It has been running for five years now, and is linked to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, of which Millennium Development Goal 3 (MDG3) is specifically concerned with the evolution of women’s rights.
The IGF as an inclusive forum
The discussions I witnessed at IGF 2010 really brought home to me the scale of the challenges we still face, if we are to make meaningful progress towards the goals of the IGF in general, and MDG3 in particular. For instance, although the internet has been with us for a decade and a half, no-one can seriously claim that today’s internet governance does enough to combat violence against women in the cyber world. The technology may have evolved at phenomenal pace over that period, but social, cultural and legal change proceeds at a far slower pace : and yet the time remaining to achieve MDG3 is just five years.
While the discussions and initiatives of the IGF are welcome, I challenge whether they are enough, in the absence of serious national debate – particularly in developing countries like Pakistan, where such discourse remains extremely rare.
When we talk of cultural and social change, it should go without saying that the most important participants in the discussion should be today’s young people. Unfortunately, even in a supposedly global forum, that is exactly what happened: the perspectives of young people went largely unspoken, even when their representatives were present and wanted to speak. I can recall the intervention of the youngest member of the European parliament - Amelia - who was elected as a Pirate Party MEP for Germany. She practically had to seize the microphone from the moderator of one of the main sessions, just to ask the panel how long we have to listen the same old voices, who have been speaking in IGF for five years, without seeing any visible change in the strategies of Internet Governance. If the IGF is serious about listening to the voice of youth, now is the only time to do it. That’s only logical: if you delay and delay, they aren’t the youth any more!
And then I remember the remarks of Anriette, the executive director of APC, who showed her concern about the low participation of women as a principal stakeholder - and also about the lack of voices from developing countries being heard in these forums. The IGF Programme was massive: multiple themes, with dozens of sessions and scores of stakeholders – and yet among all those workshops there were only two or three covering the topic of Internet Governance and women’s rights – and even those were all organised or co-organized by APC alone.
If the UN is truly committed to MDG3, it must surely do more to ensure that the rights of women, as a major stakeholder group, are better represented through the IGF. If even global bodies such as the UN cannot prioritise women’s rights in the IGF context, what hope is there at the national level?
A national perspective
Turning to that national level; from a Pakistani perspective I see more than enough evidence of Pakistani girls and women as victims of cyber crimes, including cyber stalking, cyber pornography and cyber bullying through the internet and mobile cell phones. Society has certainly adapted quickly in one respect, even in developing nations: online services like YouTube, Facebook, mobile SMS as well as MMS have quickly been turned to these less appealing uses, and innocent women, especially young women and students.
What is not often understood, even in supposedly inclusive and well-informed communities like the IGF, is the appalling impact these actions can have, particularly in developing nations with more restrictive or conservative cultures. What might, in some Western nations, amount to no more than an immature but harmless prank, can – in countries like Pakistan, have the most dire results: a home-made, manipulated video of a young Pakistani girl, uploaded and disseminated online, can cause untold harm to the unknowing subject, who – through no fault or even act of her own - may find herself facing subsequent loss of personal liberty, mobility and recreation, and even deprived of educational, employment and marital opportunities, leading to social boycott and parental censure.
The IGF must proceed towards MDG3 – but it cannot do so on an assumption that “one governance regime fits all”, in the global online world.
From my own experience of working on women’s rights in Pakistan, I can cite many examples of cyber crime which just cannot be ignored if MDG3 is to be anything more than an empty hope. Here are some of the kinds of activity, made possible by the internet, which have a disproportionate effect on women in our society:
The legal dimension
I freely admit: these are complex social and cultural issues, and neither technology nor law alone can offer a solution. However, it seems to me that one sure way to fail is to try and address them in the absence of legal protections against cyber crime.
Pakistan's own “Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance 2007” was allowed to lapse several months ago from now, and there is no sign of new legislation being brought forward. Unfortunately in absence of cyber law only one remedy is available under section 509 Pakistan Penal Code which allows victim to register complaints against harassment through our Police Enforcement Authority, yet regrettably the way our police treat the victims, specially women, they always avoid to go to police being pressurized by family.
The enforcement authority which deals with cyber crime (the Federal Investigation Authority, or FIA) says there is no law in the country at the moment to check cyber crimes, and as a result they are unable to take action on any cyber-crime related complaints.
This is how one Pakistani newspaper reports the FIA’s response to cyber complaints:
“The contents of complaint prima facie attract the application of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance. The ordinance has, however, expired in November 2009 and thereafter neither the same has been re-promulgated nor any other law has been passed by Parliament dealing with offences punishable under PECO.
In view of above legal position, the acts of omission/commission mentioned in the complaint do not constitute an offence punishable under any law available on the charter of FIA.
Hence, no action can be initiated on your complaint by NR3C for want of jurisdiction.”
The cyber crime ordinance was first issued through a presidential order on December 31st, 2007 by former president Musharraf, and was later endorsed by Present government with minor amendments. Ordinances are supposed to be endorsed or renewed every three months.
According to the FIA, it has been reminding the concerned departments (principally, the Ministry of IT and Telecomms) about the lapse of the ordinance, but apparently they are either simply ignoring the FIA, or deliberately giving priority to other business. One might think that government departments have as much interest in preventing cyber crime as anyone else; either to protect their own ability to function properly, or to safeguard the interests of the citizens they serve. It is hard to see what motive they could have for their current refusal to act.
The cultural factor
In other respects, too, the Pakistan government's inaction is surprising: for example, if we accept that there is to be no law under which cyber crimes can be prosecuted, wouldn't it be sensible to educate citizens about how to do more to protect themselves when they go online? And yet unfortunately in Pakistan we don’t see any governmental campaigns to raise awareness of cyber crimes and how to protect against them. Instead, it is left to rare, non-governmental organisations such as Bytes For All (a member of APC - Association for Progressive Communication) to raise awareness of issues such as violence against women and girls in the digital world.
Such campaigns are essential, if cultures are to adapt successfully to technological change – but they are seriously undermined if citizens have no legal remedy when their Cyber Rights are infringed.
A call to action for the UN
On 16th September 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the 2010 MDG Gap Task Force Report with the following words: “Tremendous progress has been made in strengthening (international) partnerships but the agreed deadline of 2015 is fast approaching and there is still much to be done”.
Mr Secretary General, for all the progress you mention towards stronger international partnerships, I hope this report makes it clear that in some respects, we are actually worse off now than we were a little under a year ago, in November 2009. Our government shows little interest in giving its citizens either legal protection, or practical guidance on how to protect themselves.
The deadline for MDG3 is not just challengingly close: it is seriously at risk. If member states such as Pakistan are allowed to do nothing, the UN cannot meet its Millennium Development Goals.
As the chief sponsor of the IGF and the Millennium Development Goals, please send the following message to the governments of Pakistan and other developing nations:
But above all, act.