Human Rights

DRF Cyber Harassment Helpline Report: Rise in Online Violence

The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has released its seventh annual Cyber Harassment Helpline Report for 2023. The Helpline has completed seven years of operations since its launch in December 2016 and has received a total number of 16,849 complaints from across Pakistan. In 2023 alone a total of 2473 new complaints were received on the helpline with an average number of 206 new complaints received each month and February 2023 having the most complaints in the year.

The helpline report is a compilation of the data from complaints received by the Helpline through its toll-free number (0800-39393), email and DRF’s social media platforms from Monday to Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm. The report also contains case studies and feedback from Helpline callers and recommendations for policymakers and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

The Cyber Harassment Helpline is the region’s first dedicated helpline addressing tech-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) with gender-sensitive, confidential and free services. It provides legal advice, digital assistance, and basic psychological assistance and offers a proper referral mechanism. The helpline operates 7 days a week to cater to a growing number of requests over the weekend.

Nighat Dad, Executive Director of DRF, noted, “There’s been a significant rise of complaints relating to technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) against women and marginalized groups in the year 2023. These instances of violence are also leading to a rise in potential offline violence for these groups. Another alarming thing that we noted through the helpline near the elections was the use of generative AI content being used to exacerbate violence against women in the public sphere, particularly women journalists. These growing numbers are alarming and grow to show how online spaces are perpetuating identity-based attacks on women and marginalized groups. There is a need for urgent redressal and protection for survivors facing TFGBV with holistic support from state institutions within the country.”

In 2023 Women were the highest reported victims of online harassment constituting 58.5% of complainants. The Helpline also noted that like the previous year this year the transgender community was subjected to an orchestrated online hate campaign and these complaints made up to approximately 1.6% .. Despite last year’s findings of similar attacks, responses and actions taken by social media platforms have been the same.

Hyra Basit, the helpline manager stated, ‘This year, we have seen how the manifestation of TFGBV has evolved over years, with rising complaints of incredible privacy violations of women via unregulated apps, and the use of modern editing and generative AI to produce non-consensual intimate images (NCII)’

Moreover, the report highlights that the highest number of complaints received in 2023 were from Punjab (1724), followed by Sindh (261) and KP (112). This geographical breakdown of data will help in mapping the accessibility of law enforcement agencies and other remedial resources. The FIA, which is the designated law enforcement agency under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), has cybercrime wings in only 15 cities.

While reports can be submitted through their helpline and online complaint form, feedback from multiple complainants shows that these methods are unreliable and the most efficient way to submit a complaint is through in-person complaints. Furthermore, the Helpline occasionally receives complaints from people outside Pakistan which was 58 in 2023, and comprised Pakistani and non-Pakistani citizens, where the lack of physical presence or representation within the country to file a case with the FIA can be a challenge.

Additionally, the report also includes a set of recommendations for policymakers and LEAs regarding online harassment cases in the country. For policymakers, it recommends collaboration with gender-specific civil society organizations for conducting gender sensitization workshops in schools and education institutions, integrating digital literacy and safety into school curriculums, addressing the digital gender divide by removing barriers to internet and device access for women, enacting human rights-compliant legislation on digital privacy and protection, and supporting civil society organizations working on digital rights and gender equality.

Recommendations for law enforcement include increasing resource allocation, establishing mechanisms for handling cases in foreign jurisdictions, enhancing the functionality of online complaint portals, developing protocols for coordination with police, collecting gender-disaggregated data on cyber harassment cases, establishing dedicated desks for cyber harassment within cybercrime wings, improving coordination between branches, providing psychological services for victims, implementing a case management and tracking system, enhancing technical expertise, and providing training for judges on cybercrime law, internet governance, and online harassment to improve their ability to adjudicate related cases effectively.

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