Revenge ****, a term that often refers to the online distribution of sexual images by former lovers, has become part and parcel of the modern internet experience around the world: One 2020 study found that one in three people in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. has been a victim of the phenomenon.
But, the legal avenues to prosecute revenge **** remain woefully retrograde. Only a few countries have explicitly banned the material — including Israel, Japan, and the Philippines — while other countries address it through broad privacy protections and online crimes legislation. Many countries lack any formal laws to address revenge **** at all.
In 2016, Pakistan adopted one of the most radical and aggressive set of policies against the unwanted dissemination of sensitive images. The law specifically criminalizes distributing video or photography “in a manner that harms a person” without their consent. It’s punishable by up to five years in prison and a $32,000 fine.
On paper, it’s a strong legal backbone for Pakistanis on the receiving end of abuse online. But for one young woman, coming forward with her case was anything but straightforward. After she reported her ex-boyfriend to authorities for sharing her video without her permission, the authorities released him from custody, and he went on to upload her video on Pornhub and over a dozen other **** sites. Her case reveals how, when mishandled by authorities, a revenge **** law can leave victims worse off than where they started.
When Maham first began messaging the boy she soon called her boyfriend, in 2017, she was 16, and her family had yet to allow her a smartphone. On a laptop computer she shared with her brother, she rarely interacted with strangers online. “It was my first experience on a social media website,” said Maham, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “I was only allowed to add my friends and family.” On occasion, she’d post in groups and “share lame posts like ‘Please pray for my exam,’” she recalled. Maham was interested in graphic design and sometimes shared her edits on public pages too.
“When he messaged me, I thought he was approaching me for a project; sometimes people would ask me to edit their photos,” she said.
The boy, who lived in a city a few miles outside of Maham’s native Lahore, chatted with her on Facebook Messenger about this and that: the events of her day, what she was up to at school — small talk between online friends. Maham’s middle-class family, like many in Pakistan, discouraged her from intimate relationships before marriage. Her online dalliance with the boy from out of town wasn’t just thrilling — in her mind, it was a secret act of defiance.
Things changed soon after they made their relationship official. “He started forbidding me from meeting my male cousins and would tell me not to go outside because he didn’t like it,” explained Maham. Soon after, he started to ask for intimate videos, emotionally blackmailing her into sending them. “He would say things like, ‘Do you not trust me? You can’t even do this for me?’”
As a compromise, her boyfriend told her she could record a revealing video and send it to herself on Facebook Messenger, just to see how it feels. He told her to record herself in specific poses. It made Maham uncomfortable, but she trusted him. Thinking only she could see the video, she messaged it to herself (Facebook Messenger allows users to send messages to themselves for drafting purposes and uploading files). Her boyfriend’s incessant requests suddenly stopped, and she felt relieved they could go back to their usual banter.
After two years of dating almost exclusively online, Maham discovered he was cheating on her and broke up with him. At first, the experience rolled off her back: “I got a haircut, started getting dressed up for college, and was very happy.” By now, 18-year-old Maham wasn’t the online newbie she was at 16: She had her own cell phone and toggled seamlessly between multiple social media apps. She made her own Instagram page, where she posted her design work and had even found a small following of fans.“He was blackmailing me to patch things up with him.”
A few days after the breakup, though, an anonymous Instagram profile sent Maham a screen recording of the video she had taken of herself. How could anyone have the video? she thought to herself. It was then she remembered her ex had asked for her Facebook password while they were dating; he saw the video she thought she had sent to herself. “He confessed that it was him,” she said. “He was blackmailing me to patch things up with him.” When she refused his offer, he sent the video to her mother.
In any context, sharing an intimate video with someone’s parent is a violation of privacy. But in Pakistan, where honor killings are prevalent, the act was potentially life-threatening. Luckily, her family supported her in her predicament. Maham says that, even back then, her brother, who works in IT, knew of the revenge **** law in the books. Within days of her ex sending the video, she went to the federal police and registered the crime, evidence in hand.
In 2016, while Pakistan’s parliament considered its first set of comprehensive online regulations, how Pakistani women used the internet was part of the national discourse. In July of that year, a viral influencer named Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her own brother in an apparent honor killing.
While the Qandeel Baloch case made international news, local stories of online abuse had been appearing with more frequency in the papers. The country was in the midst of a massive change: every year, millions of Pakistanis bought their first smartphone, and, with cheaper data becoming available even in rural villages, access to the internet went from a privilege for the elite to a commodity for everyone. The cases that made the news from that time — doxxing, viral videos of women in conservative areas, and anonymous harassment — painted a picture of a society grappling with the negative implications of an increasingly online world.
Farieha Aziz, co-founder and director of a digital rights organization called Bolo Bhi, says it’s no surprise that Pakistan’s first comprehensive digital law was ushered in under the guise of protecting women. “It was used as a cover to bring in a lot of the draconian aspects of the law we’re seeing play out today,” she said. In the years since Pakistan adopted its electronic crimes law, it has been used to silence dissidents, journalists, and activists critical of the establishment in the country.
Aziz says the focus on gendered online abuse brought urgency to passing the law, which Bolo Bhi and other groups strongly opposed for its far-reaching civil rights implications. “They knew that this would water down criticism,” explains Aziz. “Even civil society and opposition parties fell victim to this narrative: ‘Yes, but we need a law.’”
Once the new set of regulations was passed, almost all cyber crimes in Pakistan fell under a federal police authority known as the Federal Investigation Agency, or the FIA. The agency, akin to the FBI in the United States, oversees border control and federal-level crimes, like smuggling and terrorism. But after multiple scandals and accusations of corruption and malfeasance over the course of the FIA’s decades-long operations, the agency’s reputation among the average Pakistani is checkered at best.
Since the 2016 cyber crimes law went into effect, the FIA’s handling of sensitive nonconsensual **** and online harassment cases has also come under scrutiny. Aziz, who sometimes assists women wanting to prosecute online abuse, says she has seen cases where the agency has lost evidence, failed to investigate, or even blackmailed women coming forward to report online crime. In 2020, a young woman reported a man uploading sensitive images of her online to the agency. The accused was put in prison, but the woman continued to be harrassed by his friends, and after FIA officers didn’t take her complaints seriously, she died by suicide.
When Maham came to the FIA’s office in Lahore with her family in December 2019, she was confident the evidence she brought to the officers would result in an arrest. Within two days, her ex-boyfriend was taken into police custody. But his family pressured her into meeting with an FIA officer just days later. She returned to the agency’s office, where a lawyer representing the agency told Maham to sign a document. “I wasn’t told what was on the paper, so I signed whatever form they presented to me,” she said.“You have to look at the mechanism through which it’s operationalized, and that mechanism is stuck in a broken criminal justice system.”
Jannat Ali Kalyar, a Lahore-based lawyer who now represents Maham, says the document bent the rules for her ex so he could get out of jail while the case was being investigated. “This is a non-bailable offense, and yet he was granted bail,” she said.
Within days of him leaving police custody, Maham received a direct message from a new Instagram account: a screenshot of her intimate video on Pornhub. At first, she thought it might be photoshopped but searched her Instagram handle on the site out of curiosity and realized it was real. A few Google searches later, Maham discovered the video was co-hosted on as many as 13 **** sites.
“I started shaking and was crying incessantly. A thousand people had already seen those videos,” she explained. “I wanted them to be taken down immediately but didn’t know how.”
Maham, with the videos in hand, went back to the federal officers who had registered her first complaint, but she says the officers’ understanding of how to handle technology was so limited, she quickly realized the job of getting the videos taken down would fall on her. Armed with her laptop, she spent hours learning about the copyright policies of sites like Pornhub, which has been accused of making it difficult for victims of nonconsensual **** to get their own images removed from its massive library of pornographic content.
“I had never seen these websites before, but I knew every website has privacy policies because of my brother’s background in IT,” said Maham. “I started with these policies and then started reporting my videos for copyright infringement.” Before removing them, she took screenshots of the webpages, meticulously documenting each instance in the hope that it would build a new case against her ex. She describes it as a dark period in her life: in between hours of sorting through her own intimate videos online, she became paranoid. “I would think people on the road have seen my video and that they were all looking at me,” said Maham.
But Maham’s battle to scour the internet wasn’t supported by the FIA. Pakistan has yet to sign a global treaty that allows for the exchange of evidence and information in cross-border cyber crimes, leaving no mechanism for Pakistani authorities to request information on behalf of Maham or anyone else facing a similar predicament, even if they knew how.
The officers tasked with helping Maham weren’t just unable to help her get the videos removed from **** sites — once she removed them, they told her they couldn’t prosecute her ex for posting them because the videos were no longer live. Kalyar, Maham’s lawyer, says that’s not the correct interpretation of the law, but without the FIA’s support, there’s not much Maham could do but remove the videos as they appeared.
Exasperated, she returned to the agency’s offices hoping to find an alternative way to file a new case against her ex. Maham and her lawyer sat in a meeting room meeting with officers when Maham sent a voice note over WhatsApp to her brother to update him on her progress. “One of the officers demanded that she show her phone, and confiscated it,” said Kalyar. Agitated, the officers accused Maham of a crime and even added her to her own complaint file. “We weren’t discussing state secrets,” her lawyer said. “It was a conversation about her own case.”
Aziz says instances of harassment and inaction on the part of authorities in cases like this aren’t uncommon. “The intent of this law was never to provide protection,” she said. “That much is clear five years on.” According to Aziz, the law can’t deter future crimes or provide recourse for victims in and of itself. “You have to look at the mechanism through which it’s operationalized,” she explained, “and that mechanism is stuck in a broken criminal justice system.”
The FIA’s mishandling of revenge **** cases comes at a time when instances of gender-based crimes online are on the uptick. The Cyber Harassment Helpline, a Pakistani hotline managed by a nonprofit organization called the Digital Rights Foundation, recorded an over 200% increase in cyber harassment complaints, the majority of them related to nonconsensual **** and blackmailing, within the first two months of the Covid-19 lockdown last year. According to the agency’s own statistics, the FIA has “resolved” just 616 complaints out of over 135,000 that it has received since 2016.
“Why introduce a law if this is what’s going to happen?” Aziz asked. “It’s creating false hope. People are getting caught up in it.” Aziz describes some of the problems women have faced after coming forward to report online abuse: mental health issues, financial and professional losses, and societal pressure, without much chance of prosecution. “It’s one incident versus everything else they’ve experienced as a result of pursuing these complaints.”
For Maham, whose ex-boyfriend remains out of police custody, the experience of navigating what she thought would be a clear-cut case has traumatized her almost as much as the posts themselves. She still searches **** sites on the chance that her videos will resurface, fearing someone around her will see the video she made years ago.
But without support from the authorities, she mostly works on removing the videos herself. “Criminals made these laws to protect criminals,” she said. “They don’t protect women.”