LGBTQ communities in the Arab world face unique digital threats
Across the Arab world, LGBTQ communities are still struggling for social recognition and individuals still face legal sanctions for consensual activities. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq, homosexuality is punishable by death. In 2001, 52 men were arrested for their homosexuality in Cairo. And in Syria, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, being denounced as homosexual means risking years in prison. While activists in some countries, such as Lebanon, have progress made towards more rights, personal security remains an imperative.
In countries where homosexuality remains taboo or punishable by law, it makes sense for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans * and other queer (LGBTQ) people to explore their gender identities online. But the Internet is increasingly becoming a risky place to explore. More and more governments in the region are using digital surveillance to trap, arrest, detain and harass people who visit LGBTQ websites or chat rooms, or who use social media to protest homophobic laws and stigma. social. Meanwhile, nationwide complicit internet search and filter companies have censored content relating to homosexuality by blocking websites and restricting keyword searches in countries like Sudan, Yemen. and in the Gulf region.
Fear and self-censorship
In Saudi Arabia, religious police expelled individuals, resulting in their imprisonment. A man in the kingdom was arrested by religious police for using Facebook find and hang out with other men. This happens a lot, but it is extremely difficult to gather details of cases because being publicly accused of homosexuality can ruin your life. Unmasked homosexuals can be permanently excluded from their families, lose all employment prospects and destroy the reputation of their social networks.
Another man in Saudi Arabia jailed for three years and tortured with 150 lashes after police officer tricked him into a public chat room and asked to meet in person with all of her makeup and drag outfits. The arrested men are often held in a cell reserved for homosexuals in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, where between 50 and 75 men were reportedly crammed into a single cell. Men held in the designated cell said they were trapped by police while using chat and connection sites like Hornet, U4Bear and WhosHere.
Saudi Arabia is not the only country to use these tactics. In the United Arab Emirates, where male homosexuality is punishable by death, the men were detained to search for sex partners in chat rooms (possibly trapped by secret police). And in neighboring Iran, a massive internet trapping campaign a few years ago dozens of men were jailed, many of whom were subjected to public torture.
Tactics such as entrapment – and the serious consequences that follow – undoubtedly lead to self-censorship, as those seeking moral support or online partnership may fear it will ruin their lives.
A range of threats
It’s not just individuals who do the censorship. State censorship of sexual content abounds online, and LGBTQ content in particular is frequently a target. LGBTQ support and health websites and publications are regularly closed or become inactive. As journalist Anna Lekas Miller recently wrote, the Syrian same-sex society network is now showing a blank page, while an online Egyptian publication was recently closed for “security” reasons.
Other countries are known to screen LGBTQ sites nationwide, and US search engine companies have been complicit. Microsoft’s Bing service was found to censor gay and lesbian sites in Arab countries. A 2010 study found that a search of the “lesbian” world on Bing with the settings for Arab countries enabled resulted in the following message: “Your country or region requires a strict Bing Safe Search setting, which filters out results that might return adult content.
LGBTQ people and communities are right to be cautious. Combined with the usual range of risks faced by internet users in the region, these additional threats mean that these communities are particularly vulnerable. Fortunately, there are tools to help users stay safe online and bypass censorship.
Our friends from the Tactical Technology Collective have concocted a set of digital security tools and tactics for LGBT groups in the Arab world available in English and Arab. Written in collaboration with LGBTQ activists in the Arab world, the guide is a prelude to Safety in a box and offers specific advice for the regional context. Today, many privacy enhancing technologies, such as TextSecure and Tor, are also available in Arabic. With an increased awareness of online threats (thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying), it has become easier than ever to find tools and tactics to stay safe online.