Women face online threats globally, but run a unique risk in Muslim Pakistan, where there is a tradition of men killing women seen as having injured a family’s honour, along with punitive laws against blasphemy.
With law enforcement too weak to fight the violence sparked by online campaigns, activists want internet firms to roll out greater protection for users, from streamlining how they tackle complaints to faster action against threats.
“These technologies are helping to increase violence against women, not just mirroring it,” said Gul Bukhari of Bytes for All, and the author of a report released this week as Pakistan experiences a surge in sectarian hatred, attacks on minorities and blasphemy quarrels.
“A lot of the crime we are witnessing would not have been possible without the use of these technologies.”
There have been more than 170 complaints of cybercrime against women this year in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab, the Federal Investigation Agency said.
None of the cases was successfully prosecuted because women usually reached a compromise with the suspect, said Syed Shahid Hassan, an official with the cybercrime office in the provincial capital Lahore.
Since police rarely act when women are harassed online, few cases are reported, activists say.
About 32 million of Pakistan’s 180 million people use the internet, the group reported, mainly on mobile phones. About 12 million are on Facebook and some two million use Twitter.
An online hate campaign last year urging the rape and murder of a human rights defender culminated in shots being fired at the woman and her husband. She received hundreds of threats and family addresses were posted online, plus pictures of her and her daughter.
“She suffered nightmares of being raped, of family members being harmed because of her,” the group said.
Facebook took down the pages twice, after they were posted by a different user.
Twitter said it took tough steps to protect privacy and tackle abuse.
But the woman is unlikely to get justice, as police have lost all the evidence and the sole witness has died.
In another case, a 14-year-old girl was blackmailed into submitting to repeated gang rapes after her boyfriend threatened to post online a video he had secretly shot of the two together.
The girl said she was too ashamed to tell her family and gave into her abuser’s demands.
Ms Bukhari’s investigation showed police got the girl’s age wrong – they said she was 18 – and did not charge her abusers with statutory rape.
Two years on, authorities have not asked Facebook for evidence, the girl’s lawyer said. The site said it would investigate if the rape video proved to have been posted on its pages.
Twitter and Facebook had made it easier to report abuse, said Ms Bukhari: “They are responding a bit better to women in the West. But voices in other countries are not being heard with as much seriousness and that puts women in danger.”