This blog post is based on key highlights from the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School, held last April 2022 under the Greater Internet Freedom program. Read the rest of the posts here.
Nepal’s current legal framework regarding cyber security and cybercrimes is inadequate in handling emerging digital problems. The government has to instead rely on the Electronic Transactions Act 2008 to prosecute certain cases, and with no new update to the law itself, it undermines Nepal’s ability to deal with ever-evolving cybersecurity issues.
During the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School and Gender and Digital Rights Fellowship hosted by EngageMedia under the Greater Internet Freedom project, the following issues and related concerns were deemed noteworthy.
Online Freedom of Expression: Government’s tightening control over online spaces. The Nepalese government has exercised various forms of digital control over free speech, as seen in the following cases: an October 2022 statement issued by the Election Commission cautioning citizens to refrain from making negative comments regarding politicians; an order for the news portal Setopati to delete an article; and the threat to penalise the organisers of the #NoNotAgain social media campaign against incumbent political figures.
Online Privacy: Poor digital infrastructure failing to protect data privacy. In January 2023, Nepalese government sites went down due to a DDoS attempt to disrupt accessibility, with a total of 1,500 websites rendered unavailable. Another attack utilised a mobile app to steal customers’ data and withdraw millions of Rupees from various bank accounts. With reports of cybercrimes rising to an unprecedented level, the nation’s digital security infrastructure is brought into question. The current laws focusing on cyber security are ill-equipped to handle more complex cases, and cybercrime task forces at various levels still have limited knowledge of evolving cybersecurity issues. Existing laws do not clearly define the government’s responsibility for the digital information of citizens, including data stored within government servers.
Digital Inclusion and Connectivity: Low internet penetration across the country. Nepal has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world, with only 17% of the population having internet access. Some of the factors affecting this include limited infrastructure, high costs for digital tools and services, and scarcity of devices. Women have lower digital literacy skills compared to men, and they face systemic exclusion in addition to geographic and economic barriers to accessing the internet. The government is addressing these concerns by launching the Digital Nepal Framework policy specifically focusing on increasing digital economy participation among the public.
Online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV): Cybercrimes disproportionately affect women. In the first half of 2023, 680 complaints of OGBV have already been received by the cyber bureau. According to a 2020 online survey, one in five girls between the ages of 13 to 24 have been subjected to hate speech and sexual content on the internet. As in many cases of OGBV in Nepal, there is no specific regulation defining, prohibiting, and penalising acts such as revenge porn, and authorities instead rely on a provision of the Electronic Transactions Act 2008 penalising the publication of illegal material to prosecute perpetrators and ban host servers. The provision itself loosely defines what constitutes ‘illegal material’ and is prone to misinterpretation.
Online Disinformation and Hate Speech: Online platforms as enablers of fake news. At least nine out of 10 social media users in Nepal receive misinformation online regularly; as people are increasingly reliant on popular platforms to access news and information, algorithmic systems push more sensationalist content with limited verification processes. While there have been measures initiated to combat disinformation, the existing Electronic Transactions Act (2008) does not cover the issue of disinformation entirely.
Digital Hygiene: Rural residents in need of digital hygiene resources. Limited understanding regarding safe internet practices and data management has put many Nepalis at risk of being victimised by cybercrime, including financial scams and cyber harassment. Teenagers and the elderly in more rural areas are especially vulnerable due to limited digital hygiene knowledge and skills.