Nighat Dad was born and lives in Pakistan and has worked as a lawyer and digital rights activist for the greater part of two decades. As the founder of the Digital Rights Foundation and a member of Facebook’s Oversight Board, she has sought to promote the rights of women and protect free speech. We spoke with her about her experiences in these fights and how she balances protecting minorities with the right to free speech.
AHA Foundation: At the ‘Future of Free Speech’ conference in Copenhagen last year, you argued that free speech is important for vulnerable people, especially women living in developing countries. Could you explain that for our readers? How do free speech and women’s rights relate to each other?
Nighat Dad: Many people do not see free speech as a feminist issue. However, women are often the first people to be affected by curbs on free speech. For instance, under the wide criteria of ‘morality,’ content related to reproductive rights and health is blocked or removed, as content that disproportionately benefits women. Furthermore, we have seen that criminal defamation laws have been used to silence women who have spoken out against their experiences of harassment. Free speech is not some abstract ideal. It is vital for the most vulnerable to make their voices heard.
AHA Foundation: Can you tell us about your work for women in Pakistan?
Nighat Dad: While Pakistan is no exception to patriarchal violence, the particular forms in which it manifests there, shrouded under notions of honor and respect for the family, made it obvious from the start that online harassment and technology-facilitated violence were rooted in these larger structures of violence.
Often, laws fail to capture the full extent of the violence experienced by women or are not implemented properly. My work has been to advocate for more responsive laws regarding online harassment and related forms of violence, such as honor killings, workplace harassment, and gendered attacks against women activists, journalists, etc. Furthermore, my organization, the Digital Rights Foundation, runs the region’s first dedicated helpline for online harassment, providing free-of-cost services to victims and survivors of digital violence—an overwhelming majority of whom are women.
AHA Foundation: Could you tell us more about the Digital Rights Foundation?
Nighat Dad: My activism and work draw from my lived experience of the challenges women face in Pakistan, both experienced first-hand and with the women and communities I’ve worked with. While working as a lawyer I realized that while a lot of women were facing online harassment, there was no law that dealt with violence related to these spaces. This was the primary impetus for creating my organization, the Digital Rights Foundation, which was envisioned as a women-led organization approaching online spaces and technologies from a feminist perspective.
Established in 2013, today the organization has worked to establish the region’s first cyber harassment helpline and conducts workshops and awareness sessions across the country for women, children and marginalized communities.
AHA Foundation: You have also been a defender of free speech against the Pakistani government’s attempts to censor and surveil. Why is free speech important to you?
Nighat Dad: Freedom of expression is the bedrock of any vibrant democracy, where citizens can make their voices heard without fear of repercussions or censorship. The right to freedom of speech often protects the most marginalized among us, who would otherwise not have the power to express themselves. I have seen that broad powers of censorship are used to silence very marginalized groups such as dissidents, activists, women, and gender minorities, along with religious and ethnic minorities.
Freedom of expression on the internet is particularly important to me given that it allows people access to an unprecedented amount of information. Protecting this right ensures access for people who otherwise would be unable to access such information.
AHA Foundation: In 2020, you were appointed to Facebook’s Content Oversight Board. Could you tell us about the board and your work on it?
Nighat Dad: The Oversight Board is comprised of 23 independent members from around the world, and makes binding decisions on what content Facebook and Instagram should allow or remove, based on respect for freedom of speech and human rights. We also make recommendations aimed at improving Meta’s policies and processes on issues such as mis/disinformation, handling hate speech against minorities, and improving content moderation in conflict situations.
By giving users an opportunity to appeal content moderation decisions to a third party, the Board is providing more transparency and accountability to the content moderation process which was until recently handled by a handful of executives in Silicon Valley.
After doing this work for over two years, I have learned many lessons, from how Meta operates to how difficult it can be to moderate content at scale. These issues are rarely black and white and the Board focuses on better illuminating the many, many areas of grey.
One of the things I am most proud of include pushing for more transparency from Meta, which, like many other tech companies, has traditionally been a bit of a black box. This is the area in which I have probably seen the most progress.
But I know we can and will push further and achieve more. I’m excited by the adoption of our seven strategic priorities, including gender and the protection of elections and civic space. These reflect some of the most pressing issues in content moderation, which is why we selected them: we want to make an impact, to work with stakeholders to find lasting solutions to complex problems.
AHA Foundation: How do you protect free speech and women’s rights on the Board?
Nighat Dad: Content moderation is a tricky business. The balance between allowing freedom of expression, which is critical to the Board’s work and thinking, and ensuring that we better protect users from some of the worst abuses online is a challenging one.
Marginalized groups, including women in many parts of the world, have for too long suffered the consequences of hate speech, discrimination and polarization, with social media sometimes being weaponized to spread misogynistic and discriminatory language.
In Pakistan, I have seen women purposefully excluded and targeted for using social media. Female politicians, activists, and journalists are routinely targeted. But even those not in the public eye face hate and risk their safety just for wanting to participate in something that has become commonplace for most people.
Wanting to change this fundamental imbalance has driven my work for the last decade, first as an activist and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan and now as a member of the Oversight Board.
This is why I am leading the Board’s gender priority strategy work, and since announcing this a few months ago we have seen a significant impact already.
For example, we took a case concerning the harassment of minority women in India and the balance between promoting/spreading hate and raising awareness about it—which is a critical component of rooting it out.
We have called on Meta to review its policies and ensure they better align with international human rights standards. Over time, I feel changes like this will improve online experiences for billions of users around the world.
AHA Foundation: Are there any tensions between protecting free speech and overseeing social media content? If so, how do you balance them?
Nighat Dad: I believe healthy online communities can keep people safe, as well as protect freedom of expression. I don’t see this as a binary choice, or as elevating one over the other. Safety is also important to ensure people can speak without fear.
Making decisions about content on social media platforms often involves balancing and navigating a range of complex societal, technical and regulatory issues, and it is expected that the Oversight Board will regularly explore questions relating to online safety and free expression.
To get this right, we must always consider the local context and the intent of the post, as well as its ability to cause immediate real-world harms.
AHA Foundation: What can people in the West learn from the efforts by people in the rest of the world to defend free speech?
Nighat Dad: First of all, the rest of the world needs to be part of the conversations going on in the West. Regulatory frameworks and laws in the West have a trickle-down effect.
Secondly, there are several conversations regarding the harmful impact of unbridled speech–we’ve seen how hate speech has resulted in real harm in places like Myanmar and these experiences need to be centered in the West. We’ve seen that resources are extended to issues only when they happen in the West.
So the West can learn from vulnerable people elsewhere in the world of the harms speech can do—and also of how essential it is in fighting injustice. We cannot pretend that free speech is always or completely good, but equally, we cannot let ourselves lose sight of how important it is—and both of these points are most clearly seen outside of the Western world.