New report reveals how governments use technology to target LGBTIQ citizens

November 24, 2021 by Cynthia Macdonald

Online spaces are vitally important for LGBTIQ communities, which remain some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. Over the past quarter-century, the internet has been enormously helpful in permitting queer people to connect, organize, share information and feel less isolated. This has been especially necessary in countries where sexual and gender identities perceived as “abnormal” are subject to persecution.

Today, however, these online spaces are increasingly threatened by the growing spectre of state-sponsored censorship. In some countries, LGBTIQ content is routinely blocked, preventing all communication. In more severe instances, state censors use online spaces to identify, arrest and harm users.

A new report has revealed the extent of this pernicious activity. Titled No Access: LGBTIQ Website Censorship in Six Countries, the document is a collaborative work by three organizations: OutRight Action International, the Open Observatory of Network Interference, and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

Formed in 2001, Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory focusing on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security. The group uses a “mixed methods” approach to research combining practices from political science, law, computer science, and area studies.

We know that online censorship is on the rise globally, and internet filtering is practiced by authoritarian and democratic countries alike.

No Access focuses on censorship in six countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Though government-sponsored internet suppression of LGBTIQ content is particularly elevated in these jurisdictions, previous research has shown such censorship to be present in at least 100 other countries.

Says Irene Poetranto, senior research officer with Citizen Lab and one of the report’s authors: “We know that online censorship is on the rise globally, and internet filtering is practiced by authoritarian and democratic countries alike.” She adds that while LGBTIQ content is often targeted specifically, these countries also target internet users engaged in all types of human rights activism.

As governments establish new ways to restrict freedom of expression — by adopting new surveillance technologies or passing repressive new laws — creators constantly seek innovative ways to resist restrictions and perform end-runs around the censors. The result is that LGBTIQ people frequently engage in self-censorship, further isolating and endangering themselves.

No Access reveals that agents of law enforcement in Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been known to pose as gay or transgender people in order to entrap and subsequently arrest LGBTIQ individuals. Even the presence of certain apps on one’s cell phone has been used as grounds for prosecution. Governments may classify LGBTIQ web content as pornography and therefore unlawful, even in the absence of explicit imagery.

Poetranto points out that this activity directly contravenes human rights law: “The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2018 affirming that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online, including freedom of expression.” In October of this year, the UN called on states and social media companies to make online spaces safe for all marginalized groups, especially women and gender non-conforming people.

Indeed, No Access cites the great responsibility social media companies bear for this situation. Unfortunately, such companies sometimes collude with governments to abet censorship. As Poetranto says, private companies may feel their hands are tied “because for them to continue to operate in a country’s jurisdiction, they must follow that country’s laws.”

Still, she and her co-authors argue in No Access that pressure must be put on private companies to “assess and minimize the impact of the use of their technologies on human rights defenders.” They also make the case for continued training of all marginalized people who are online, so they can keep pace with the latest technological developments, as well as continued funding for the research and monitoring of digital repression.