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:

  • Some individuals use blogs to post pictures of Pakistani girls (they haven't spared school girls either) and develop scandalous stories around them. Some are smart enough to write posts in such a way that they look like normal blog posts – but if you look more carefully, they are giving out all the information about the girl whose picture has been posted.

  • Defamation is a common problem online - back in Orkut days, I was made aware of a video which, although it was posted via our college community, very well have been classed as a porn video. Some people had claimed that it was a video of one the girls of college.

  • Less severe forms of defamation are something that both men and women suffer. People often don't notice when they cross the fine line between just expressing an opinion and saying something which can cause serious offence or problems for the other person. The way in which the internet crosses cultural and national boundaries means that mere jokes and even apparently harmless posts can have serious complications for a woman.

  • There is also frequent use of email, Instant Messaging and other online channels to harass women. Apart from the obvious and unwarranted distress this can cause in itself, one should also bear in mind that these channels might otherwise be a rare and precious way for such women to socialise with their peers, express themselves and stand up for their own rights. If they cannot go online for fear of harassment, such women are denied many of the legitimate benefits of the online world.

  • 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:

  • Act now, to engage stakeholders such as the women and the young; don't allow their valuable input to be lost through inaction on your part;

  • Act now, to establish the right legal framework within which your citizens' rights can be protected against malicious and criminal online activity;

  • Act now, to make the internet a safer place, where your culture and society can thrive, evolving in pace with technology, not threatened by it.

  • But above all, act.

    Responses to this post

    Dear Nighat,
    I am sorry for not reading the comments posted before me, so there could be a repetition. Glad to hear about your participation in the IGF2010. I don't quite get how you connect MDGs solely to UN's Internet Governance Forum, which is a space to ' support the United Nations Secretary-General in carrying out the mandate from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) with regard to convening a new forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue - the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The site provides an interactive, collaborative space where all stakeholders can air their views and exchange ideas.'
    IGF Mandate
    Paragraph 72 of the Tunis Agenda:
    72. We ask the UN Secretary-General, in an open and inclusive process, to convene, by the second quarter of 2006, a meeting of the new forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue—called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The mandate of the Forum is to:
    * Discuss public policy issues related to key elements of Internet governance in order to foster the sustainability, robustness, security, stability and development of the Internet;
    * Facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet and discuss issues that do not fall within the scope of any existing body;
    * Interface with appropriate inter-governmental organizations and other institutions on matters under their purview;
    * Facilitate the exchange of information and best practices, and in this regard make full use of the expertise of the academic, scientific and technical communities;
    * Advise all stakeholders in proposing ways and means to accelerate the availability and affordability of the Internet in the developing world;
    * Strengthen and enhance the engagement of stakeholders in existing and/or future Internet governance mechanisms, particularly those from developing countries;
    * Identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations;
    * Contribute to capacity building for Internet governance in developing countries, drawing fully on local sources of knowledge and expertise;
    * Promote and assess, on an ongoing basis, the embodiment of WSIS principles in Internet governance processes;
    * Discuss, inter alia, issues relating to critical Internet resources;
    * Help to find solutions to the issues arising from the use and misuse of the Internet, of particular concern to everyday users;
    * Publish its proceedings
    Now, I do agree with you that there are gaps when it comes to young people's or women's participation in these forums but issues like privacy, security, openness and access have been part of the IGF themes previously and still are. What we need to see is how many youth and women have the capacity or know-how of the topics that are set as that year's theme and how much they 'worked' on the issue prior to making interventions. I do agree with you that our government does not have the Internet Governance issue in its list of priorities but then, at this stage other stakeholders urgently need to organize to fill the gap, so that the lack of participation is met.

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