Across the Arab world, LGBTQ communities still struggle to gain social recognition, and individuals still face legal penalties for consensual activities. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq, homosexuality is punishable by death. In 2001, 52 men were arrested for being gay in Cairo. And in Syria, Algeria, and the United Arab Emirates, being outed as homosexual means facing years in prison. While activists in some countries, such as Lebanon, have made progress toward greater 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-identifying (LGBTQ) people to explore their sexual identity online. But the Internet is increasingly becoming a risky place for exploration. More and more governments in the region are using digital surveillance to entrap, arrest, detain, and harass individuals who visit LGBTQ websites or chat rooms, or who use social media to protest homophobic laws and social stigmas. Meanwhile, nationwide filtering and complicit Internet search companies have censored content relating to homosexuality by blocking websites and restricting keyword searches in countries like Sudan, Yemen, and across the Gulf region.
Fear and self-censorship
In Saudi Arabia, religious police have outed individuals, resulting in their incarceration. One man in the kingdom was arrested by the religious police for using Facebook to find and date other men. This happens often, but it is extremely difficult to collect details of cases, since being publicly accused of homosexuality can ruin one's life. Outed homosexuals may be permanently ostracized from their families, lose all job prospects, and destroy the reputation of their social networks.
Another man in Saudi Arabia was jailed for three years and tortured with 150 lashes after a police officer entrapped him in a public chatroom and asked to meet in person with all of his makeup and drag outfits in tow. Men who are arrested are often detained in a cell designated for gay men in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, where anywhere between 50-75 men have been reported to be packed into a single cell. Men detained in the designated cell have reported that they were entrapped by police while using chat and hook-up sites like Hornet, U4Bear, and WhosHere.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country utilizing these tactics. In the United Arab Emirates, where male homosexuality is punishable by death, men have been detained for looking for sex partners in chat rooms (presumably ensnared by covert police officers). And in neighboring Iran, a massive Internet entrapment campaign a few years ago put dozens of men in jail, many of whom were subject to public torture.
Tactics like entrapment—and the severe consequences that follow—undoubtedly lead to self-censorship, as those looking for moral support or partnership online may fear that doing so could ruin their lives.
A range of threats
It’s not just individuals doing the censoring. State censorship of sexual content abounds online, and LGBTQ content in particular is frequently a target. Support and health websites, and LGBTQ publications are regularly shut down or become inactive. As journalist Anna Lekas Miller recently wrote, the Syrian Same Sex Society Network now renders a blank page, while an Egyptian online publication was recently shut down on “security” grounds.
Other countries are known to filter LGBTQ sites nationwide, and U.S. search engine companies have been complicit. Microsoft's Bing service has been found to censor gay and lesbian sites in Arabic countries. A 2010 study revealed that a search for the world “lesbian” on Bing with Arab country settings turned on resulted in the message, “Your country or region requires a strict Bing Safe Search setting, which filters out results that might return adult content.”
LGBTQ individuals 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 such communities are particularly vulnerable. Fortunately, there are tools available to help users stay safe online and circumvent censorship.
Our friends at the Tactical Technology Collective have put together a set of digital security tools and tactics for LGBT groups in the Arab world available in both English and Arabic. Written in collaboration with LGBTQ activists from the Arab world, the guide is a prelude to Security in a Box and offers specific advice for the regional context. Today, many privacy-enhancing technologies—such as TextSecure and Tor—are available in Arabic as well. With increased awareness of online threats (thanks to Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA spying), it's become easier than ever to find tools and tactics for staying safe online.