Archives for June 2020

June 22, 2020 - Comments Off on DRF Condemns Move Against Open Source Technology and OTF

DRF Condemns Move Against Open Source Technology and OTF

In a world where online freedoms are increasingly under threat from all sides, organisations who work on supporting a free and safe internet are more important than ever. This is why Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is extremely worried by developments by the US government that might undermine the work Open Tech Fund (OTF) does.

Serious concerns over the future of OTF were raised last week when the new head of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), was planning to push money and funding towards closed-source tools. OTF is an independent non-profit grantee of the USAGM and has been supporting organisations, journalists, human rights defenders and users by funding innovative and open-source projects which uphold internet freedoms across the word. This move prompted Libby Liu, the inaugural OTF CEO, to step down from her position citing concerns of interference from the new head of the USAGM in “the current FY2020 OTF funding stream and redirect some of our resources to a few closed-source circumvention tools."

OTF was one of the first supporters of DRF’s cyber harassment helpline, which has provided assistance to over 4000 individuals across Pakistan and continues to support journalists, activists, HRDs, women, children and vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 pandemic. The planned move by the USAGM threatens this support and similar work that OTF does with organisations globally. In the last eight years, OTF’s projects have “enabled more than 2 billion people in over 60 countries to safely access the internet.”

As beneficiaries, both direct and indirectly from the tools that OTF supports, we urge the US Congress to take concrete and immediate steps to ensure that OTF continues to support open-source and digital rights projects all over the world. We echo the demands made by the ‘Save Internet Freedom Tech’ coalition including that “all US-Government internet freedom funds to be awarded via an open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based decision process.”

The internet has enabled us to innovate, connect and thrive, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. We believe that internet freedom is the bedrock of what makes all these things possible on the internet, and organisations such as OTF which support the work of internet freedom are central to this foundation.

June 19, 2020 - Comments Off on Virtual ‘Private’ Networks no Longer Private as PTA Requires Registration

Virtual ‘Private’ Networks no Longer Private as PTA Requires Registration

Areeba Jibril is a DRF intern focusing on issues related to privacy, free speech, and elections. She tweets at @AreebaJibril

Finding a Virtual Private Network (VPN) provider in Pakistan is easy. A quick google search will pull up multiple free services. Casual internet users may register for these services to circumvent paywalls and access online content that has been blocked in Pakistan. They can do this without even really knowing what they’re signing up for. More sophisticated users may use VPNs to ensure that their IP addresses, and therefore their geographical location and identity, remain hidden from the websites they visit.

What casual users likely don’t know is that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has announced a registration requirement for all Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) by 30th June 2020. This is twenty-two days after they first posted a public service announcement on their website. The PTA regulations do not ban the use of VPNs entirely, but they do require users to register their VPN use with their Internet Service Providers (ISPs). To do this they must share their CNIC number, the purpose for which they would like to use a VPN, and which IP address they will be using their VPN with. The privacy intrusion is not limited to this information. –The notification is vague, therefore it is difficult to say with authority the extent of the privacy intrusions that may come about. There is online speculation about the extent of information that the government can feely request from non-VPN users and whether the same practices will apply to VPN-users as well.

The Pakistani government claims they’ve added this requirement to support the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry and promote the “safety of telecom users.” But requiring registration of VPNs defeats the purpose for which VPNs were created. VPNs cannot be private if they must be registered with ISPs, who are then required to share the information with the government. The information flow doesn’t stop there – the government has contracted with Sandvine Corporation, a US-based company, to monitor ‘grey’ internet traffic.

The 10th June announcement isn’t forthcoming regarding the significance of this announcement, by claiming that this is “not new”. It’s true that users have been reporting that their VPNs had suddenly stopped working since 2011. However, this new announcement includes the threat of legal consequences, without much clarity on what these consequences will be. The drastic consequences to privacy do not need to be new to be concerning. The PTA claims to be using its authority under clause 4(6) of Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations (MRITT), 2010. 

VPNs can be helpful for the average internet user when they want to access content such as television shows that aren’t otherwise available in Pakistan. But they serve a much more important purpose in promoting freedoms of opinion and expression by protecting the privacy of users. By using a VPN, users can ensure that the websites they visit and the content they post cannot be traced back to them. For many, anonymity is an important part of what makes the internet a safe place.

David Kaye, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, noted, “Encryption and anonymity provide individuals and groups with a zone of privacy online to hold opinions and exercise freedom of expression without arbitrary and unlawful interference or attacks… A VPN connection, or use of Tor or a proxy server, combined with encryption, may be the only way in which an individual is able to access or share information in [environments with prevalent censorship].”

As the list of registered VPN users will be shared with ISPs, the risk of private information being accessed by those with malicious intent will increase dramatically. Without the ability to hide their physical location, users will be in greater danger if they use the internet to communicate discontent with the government and seek help anonymously. 

Some users may decide they cannot risk this intrusion to their privacy and refuse to register their VPNs. It is unclear how these users will be treated. The government can request that non-registered users have their VPNs blocked. However, they have also said that users who fail to register their VPNs can face legal consequences if they cause “loss to the national exchequer.” They maintain that they are adding this requirement to terminate “illegal traffic.” These vague terms should be a great cause of concern. What is illegal traffic? What will be considered a “loss to the national exchequer”? When will users be held legally accountable for failing to register their VPNs? The lack of guidance increases the risk that these laws will be used to target political dissidents and unpopular speech.

The notification concerning VPNs, coupled with the news from a few months back regarding ‘Deep Packet Inspection’ (DPI) poses a serious threat to online privacy and security for the common Pakistani citizens. DPI allows unprecedented access to a private individual’s activity online. The added issue with the DPI technology is the fact that the government has been incredibly silent on how they plan on using the technology and what the purpose of it is. This silence and general vagueness is somewhat similar to what we’re witnessing nowadays when it comes to this notification regarding VPNs in the country.   

Pakistan is not alone in regulating the use of VPNs. Belarus, China, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Oman, Russia, Uganda, the UAE, and Venezuela have either introduced some measures to restrict the use of VPNs or banned the use outright. Iran allows the use of VPNs, but only if providers are Iranian while Russia bans VPN usage for sites that have previously been blocked by Russia’s governing body for telecommunications and mass media communications. Consequences for using VPNs are also wide-ranging. In China, the government has gone so far as to arrest a VPN provider. In Oman, private users face a 500 rial fine ($1300USD). 

Given the human and digital rights track record of these countries, this is not a list of countries that Pakistan should want to be on.  


The coming Pakistan VPN ban: PTA sets deadline for VPN users to register by June 30th
Where are VPNs legal and where are they banned?

June 11, 2020 - Comments Off on Quetta Internet Shutdown

Quetta Internet Shutdown

This article has been authored by Zainab Durrani who is a Project Manager at DRF

The recent incident of internet shutdown in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, has been noted by the Digital Rights Foundation with a grave degree of concern.

Two days without the Internet

For over 48 hours, between 30 May and 2 June, 2020 Quetta remained without access to mobile internet services. This occurrence, especially in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic that is at its peak in Pakistan at the moment, is an egregious infringement on the residents’ right and access to information, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the world and depriving them of potentially essential and lifesaving information.

Internet shutdowns are a deliberate effort to cut-off particular communities from access to the internet, which includes information, social media platforms and services accessible online. Internet shutdowns come in a myriad of forms: the relevant authority can choose to throttle access to a specific section of the population by cutting off bandwidth; instituting broadband/mobile internet shutdowns, “Internet blackouts”; blanket internet shutdowns, mobile phone call and text message network shutdowns; service-specific (platform) shutdown e.g cutting off access to platforms like Twitter or Facebook.

This particular shutdown purportedly came after escalating tensions between members of the Hazara and Pashtun communities in Quetta. The deaths of three young men from the Pashtun community led to unrest in the city and the eventual blockage of internet services was to purportedly quell this unrest. However, as per sources, the reasons for the shutdown were unknown to the provincial government at the time, who were unsure as to why the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had disbanded services in the city. Additionally, no official public notice was given by the PTA to communicate the shutdown, and its expected duration.

Concerns for residents

Internet shutdowns are an ineffective way of dealing with unrest in a particular locality, in that they are a disproportionate measure and human rights groups over the world have pointed out that they have the potential to engender more panic in the absence of access to information.

The shutdown impacted the work of many throughout the city. As a journalist, Mr. Hafizullah Sherani from Voice of America expressed difficulty in filing reports, having to go through the extraordinary lengths which involved attempting to get connectivity on the roadside, in front of a friend’s office, at 2 AM ironically in order to file his story on the shutdown itself. Saadullah Akhter from Balochistan Express echoed this experience noting that ‘it was an abrupt suspension when the city was in grip of tension following Hazara Town lynching hence we faced immense difficulty in getting accurate information over the incident and sharing it with other colleagues and newsrooms.’

This shutdown impacted the lives of dwellers from all walks of life, who, in the process of getting through an unprecedented pandemic, are relying heavily on connectivity not only to remain in touch with friends and family, but to coordinate efforts to arrange resources such as plasma of recovered patients to help those suffering from COVID-19.

Not only was it a problem as a field reporter, notes journalist Rani Wahidi, but as a citizen who could not communicate with their family through secure channels like Whatsapp, to keep in touch throughout the day or share her location with them for safety purposes. The shutdown increased the difficulty of those stepping outside their homes to work during a global pandemic.

Are shutdowns effective?

Shutdowns are a common tactic used by the state to ensure elusive aims such as “security” and “safety”. This is particularly so in Balochistan which faces frequent internet shutdowns and connectivity issues. For instance, in 2018 parts of Balochistan witnessed three shutdowns over the course of a week, one of which occurred during the Pashtun Long March.

As per Access Now there were at least 213 recorded instances of internet shutdowns the world over during the year 2019 alone in 33 countries. Not only are these shutdowns generating a social cost that impedes human rights, there is an economic cost--and a hefty one at that. 

Researchers Samuel Woodhams and Simon Migliano report that:

"In economic terms, disruptions not only affect the formal economy but also the informal, especially in less well-developed nations. There can also be lasting damage with the loss of investor confidence and faltering development, all of which makes our estimates conservative.”.

"On the human rights side, these shutdowns clearly impact citizens' freedom of expression and the right to information and may even result in an increase in violence."

Internet shutdowns often have a severe impact on freedom of assembly and association as well as mobility. Sadia Baloch, activist and member of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) said that the shutdown impacted the protest they were organizing for 4 year old Bramsh Baloch who lost her mother to violence and received injuries herself in Turbat, Balochistan.

‘... it specifically affected our protest which was on the next day,our mobilization was affected as very few people got the news and the rest of Balochistan has no internet facility which is a problem itself.’

While time-bound and location-specific internet shutdowns are very common, however there have been long-term shutdowns in the country as well. The former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) territories of Pakistan have also been facing an internet shutdown for 4 years now. 1460 days, give or take. ‘In early June 2016, at Torkham, the border forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan clashed over the construction of a gate by the Pakistani authorities on the border. This clash led to the suspension of 3G/4G services in bordering towns and tribal areas.’

The suspension of services is legally condoned under s.54 of the PTA Act which covers national security. S.54 (3) in particular reads: Upon proclamation of emergency by the President, the Federal Government may suspend or modify all or any order or licences made or issued under this Act or cause suspension of operation, functions or services of any licensee for such time as it may deem necessary. 

This is despite Islamabad High Court (IHC) ruling that mobile network shutdowns, including mobile based internet suspension were illegal. The judgment, from February of 2018,  indicated that access to telecommunication services is a fundamental right of the citizens of Pakistan, and any attempt to suspend said services is a violation of their constitutional rights. The case is currently pending on appeal.

Digital rights activist Usama Khilji of Bolo Bhi expressed his concerns by noting: 

‘The long standing internet shutdown in ex-FATA is a gross violation of the fundamental rights to information and freedom of expression and increasingly the right to education as guaranteed by the Constitution. Millions of Pakistani citizens cannot be left out of internet access as it impacts their ability to communicate, access information, and access education especially since the pandemic started. The Universal Service Fund set up by the government & contributed to by telecom companies must immediately be utilised to enable internet access in ex-FATA.’

Over the last few years, the situation has taken a turn for the worse in terms of a greater cost paid by those cut off from the internet. Currently, as students hailing from outside metropolitans have had to return home due to the implications of the coronavirus spread and there are more people working from home, blanket and arbitrary shutdowns will have a disproportionate effect, depriving them of access to information, work and an education. 

Being a member of the #KeepitOn campaign, which consists of 158 organizations from 65 countries that are devoted to fighting internet shutdowns, DRF is committed to reporting on and continuing its advocacy for constant and safe access to the internet for all. 



June 3, 2020 - Comments Off on May 2020: DRF celebrates World Press Freedom Day

May 2020: DRF celebrates World Press Freedom Day

Online campaigns and initiatives

World Press Freedom Day

Digital Rights Foundation conducted a three-day campaign to raise awareness on World Press Freedom Day, 3rd May 2020, on how the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent surge in misinformation impacting press freedom. The campaign included three facebook live sessions hosted by our Executive Director Nighat Dad and other team members with amazing journalists including, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Maham Javaid and Najia Asher. The themes of discussion revolved around coronavirus and journalism: disinfodemic and its impact on independent journalism; journalistic frontline, transforming newsrooms and increased stress; and surveillance structure and press freedom. DRF also shared resources and tools by other organisations that can help journalists in fact-checking information around COVID-19. Five infographics on the theme were also developed and shared on DRF’s socials for awareness raising.

Together for Reliable Information Campaign

DRF participated in Free Press Unlimited’s Campaign to highlight the work that our organisation and its Network of Women Journalists’ members are doing to provide people with reliable information. The campaign included five short video interviews from our team and women journalists working at the frontline to report covid-19 related news from the field. DRF developed a digital hygiene toolkit for journalists and the wider community of content creators and bloggers, which will be launched in June 2020. Ten picture stories covering the journalistic frontline of covid-19 were also included in the campaign.

DRF Annual Report

DRF launched it’s Annual report for 2019 highlighting all the important work that we’ve done so far. Through this report we would like to celebrate our team and its effort over the last year. We aim to keep striving towards having a safe and equal digital experience for all.

See our annual report here:

Policy Initiatives

Personal Data Protection Bill Recommendations

DRF submitted a thorough legal analysis of the ‘Personal Data Protection Bill 2020’. Within the bill recommendations were given to the government on how to further strengthen the bill. DRF also developed a video series around the bill to explain key terms and concerns within the bill.

Read the entire analysis here:

Statement on accountability in Waziristan honour killings

Two women were killed in the name of honor in Waziristan when a man leaked a short video of the two on social media. The video was leaked without the girls consent and contained private imagery. DRF released a statement expressing its outrage over this and demands that justice be served in this case.

Read the full statement here:

Statement on Violations of Privacy & Condemns Moral Policing in Uzma Khan case:

DRF released a statement expressing its concerns around the privacy violations and moral policing of actress Uzma Khan. Uzma Khan’s video of being bullied in her own home was leaked without her consent and is a clear violation of her privacy. The video let to her character assassination and slut-shaming that is common in cases where women assert their bodily autonomy outside the bounds of marriage.

Read the full statement here:

Media Engagement

Digital rights activist Nighat Dad part of Facebook's 'supreme court' for content

DRF is proud to announce that our ED Nighat Dad is now a part of Facebook’s newly announced oversight board to oversee decisions regarding content published on the social media network and Instagram. Nighat is one of 20 board members across the globe promoting women rights, human rights and freedom of expression on the board.

Read the full article here:

Pakistan's 'honor killings' show women need digital skills, says Facebook oversight board member

Nighat Dad spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation news about the honour killings of two girls in Waziristan over a leaked video online. She highlighted how the internet can be used against women and this is especially true in a patriarchal society like Pakistan.

Read the full article here:

Article on privacy concerns with tech to tackle Covid-19

DRF’s Shmyla Khan and Zainab Khan Durrani wrote about the framework of the data protection bill and why this may be a cause of concern for citizens. The two also talked about the emergence of invasive technology to tackle the virus and why it is important for citizens to be vigilant.

Read the full article here:

Events and Sessions

Coronavirus and Children Series

DRF’s Executive Director Nighat Dad spoke on UNICEF’s webinar on ‘Coronavirus & Children Series’ highlighting how access to ICTs is a fundamental right for everyone. She also spoke about the prevalent inequalities in online spaces in Pakistan and how girls in Pakistan are under more scrutiny online as compared to boys.

Drawing lessons from COVID 19

DRF spoke at a webinar of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on drawing lessons from COVID19 on account of world press freedom day. DRF’s ED Nighat highlighted the unequal access of information between the urban and rural and how this in itself has created a hierarchy amongst citizens. She also highlighted the rise of misinformation in times of COVID in Pakistan and how this can be a problem during the pandemic.

Fireside Chat with Nighat Dad

The NEST I/O startup pulse hosted a fireside chat with DRF’s Nighat Dad with Jehan Ara. The two discussed the workings of the data protection bill and cyber crime laws in Pakistan. There was also a discussion around online hate speech and how to curb it in times of COVID.

Inequalities: Bridging the Divide

Nighat Dad spoke at the #UN75 dialogue on ‘Inequalities: Bridging the Divide’ with 200 students, faculty and participants of NUST university from across the globe. Nighat spoke about the inequalities across the internet along with the legal and gender based inequalities in Pakistan. She also shed light on the inequalities on freedom of expression in the country.

Read more about the session here:

Pandemic Contact Tracing, privacy and data protection

DRF participated in the virtual #ImpactTalk that focused on issues with contact tracing applications from the perspective of data protection and civil rights. It was pointed out by the speakers that while it is important to address the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a balance needs to be struck with civil liberties both in the short and long term. This is particularly important in the South Asian context where there is a dearth of data protection regulations and privacy rights.

TWEETCHAT: Feminist Responses to the “Bois Locker Room”

DRF participated in a Tweetchat on May 27, 2020 organised by “End Cyber Abuse” which focused on the issue of masculinities and their manifestation in online spaces, particularly in light of the “Bois Locker Room” incident in India.

Giving Tuesday ChaynHQ

Chayn raised funds for its friends and partners on a great initiative called ‘Giving Tuesday’. Chayn raised money for the cyber harassment helpline which provides three basic services to its callers which is digital security, legal aid and psychological counselling.

DRF Collaborated With Accountability Labs 

We worked with Accountability Labs on one of their issues of their ‘Pakistan Coronavirus CivAct  Campaign’ Newsletter. This particular issue was about digital safety and security during this pandemic. This newsletter went through the types of attacks that people were facing through the lockdown and what they can do both in a preventative manner and in a defensive manner.

COVID Updates

Cyber Harassment Helpline

The Cyber harassment helpline is working virtually and has started taking calls from Monday till Friday 9 am till 5 pm. The helpline number is 0800-39393 and the helpline provides three basic services which are legal help, psychological assistance and digital security assistance.

Ab Aur Nahin

In times of COVID19 domestic abuse is at an all time high where victims do not have anywhere to go to. Ab Aur Nahin is a confidential legal and counselor support service specifically designed for survivors of harassment.

Contact us now:

IWF Portal:

Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in collaboration with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Global Fund to End Violence Against Children launched a portal to combat children’s online safety in Pakistan. The new portal allows internet users in Pakistan to anonymously report child sexual abuse material in three different languages – English, Urdu, and Pashto. The reports will then be assessed by trained IWF analysts in the UK.

The portal can be access on:



June 3, 2020 - Comments Off on COVID 19 and Cyber Harassment: DRF Releases Lockdown Numbers

COVID 19 and Cyber Harassment: DRF Releases Lockdown Numbers

DRF established the Cyber Harassment Helpline in December 2016. The services we’ve offered since then include, legal support to online harassment victims as well as digital security assistance and also psychological counseling of victims. 

As Pakistan entered its lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we feared there would be an increase in cyber-harassment cases as well as cyber attacks in general. To explore this possibility we analyzed the data from our Cyber Harassment Helpline from the months of March and April 2020 and compared it to the data from January and February 2020, to compare how cases have grown in the lockdown. Given that the pandemic became a public health emergency in Pakistan in March 2020, we feel that the comparison can reflect the changing patterns of online harassment and violation in relation to the social ramifications of COVID-19 This analysis is being released in the form of a policy brief and includes a list of recommendations for concerned stakeholders. 

As compared to January and February, March and April saw an increase of 189% in complaints registered with our Cyber Harassment Helpline. 74% of the cases in March and April were reported by women, 19% by men, and 5% by gender non-binary persons. When the lockdown was enforced in March, for the safety of our employees, we had to close our office as well as shut down our Helpline’s toll-free number. This massive bump in recorded complaints came through email and our social media. 

We have found that “the forms of gendered violence that are largely directed at women in the digital sphere usually include sexual harassment, surveillance, unauthorized use and dissemination of personal data, and manipulation of personal information including images and videos. This form of violence acts as a significant barrier to women’s expression of themselves as well as meaningful engagement with the internet. A majority of the cases that the Digital Rights Foundation’s cyber harassment helpline received digitally during lockdown (April and May) pertained to blackmailing through non-consensual sharing of information, intimate pictures and videos.” 

Alongside this data, we are also releasing a list of 14 recommendations for relevant stakeholders. These cover issues of the FIA’s accessibility especially during the pandemic, and also how technology needs to be used hand in hand while dealing with harassment cases, like allowing for video testimonies etc. 

During the pandemic, the cyber harassment helpline has been working hard to provide uninterrupted services to complainants of online harassment, while ensuring the safety and well-being of our staff. Early in the lockdown period, we switched exclusively to online platforms, however, we have restored the toll-free number through cooperation from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and PTCL.

Our full policy brief is attached to this email. For more information on this policy brief and on the work of our Cyber Harassment team, you can get in touch with them using this email: 

[email protected]