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The digital rights of LGBTQ+ people: When technology reinforces societal oppressions

By EDRi · July 17, 2019

Online surveillance and censorship impact everyone’s rights, and particularly those of already marginalised groups such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and others (LGBTQ+) people. The use of new technologies usually reinforces existing societal biases, making those communities particularly prone to discrimination and security threats. As a follow-up to Pride Month, here is an attempt to map out what is at stake for LGBTQ+ people in digital and connected spaces.

The internet has played a considerable role in the development and organisation of the LGBTQ+ community. It represents an empowering tool for LGBTQ+ people to meet with each other, to build networks and join forces, to access information and acquire knowledge about vital health care issues, as well as to express, spread and strengthen their political claims.

We’ve got a monopoly problem

The centralisation of electronic communications services around a few platforms has created new barriers for LGBTQ+ people to exercising their digital rights. Trapped into a network effect – whereby the decision to leave the platform would represent a big lost for the user – most of them have only one place to go to meet and spread their ideas. The content they post is moderated arbitrarily by these privately owned platforms, following standards and “community guidelines”.

Powerful platforms’ practices result in many LGBTQ+ accounts, posts and themed ads being taken down on, while homophobic, transphobic and sexist content often remains untouched. In practice, these double-standards for reporting and banning contents mean that when queer and transgender people use typical slurs to reclaim and take pride from them, social media reviewers often disregard the intent and block them; whereas attackers use identical offensive terms without fearing the same punishment. More, the process being automated just worsens the injustice as algorithms are incapable of making the difference between the two cases. This leaves the LGBTQ+ community disenfranchised without reasonable explanations and possibilities to appeal the decisions.

Community standards apply both on the open part of social media as well as on the related private chats (such as Facebook Messenger and Wired). Since those networks play an essential role to discuss queer issues, to date and to engage in sexting, LGBTQ+ people become highly dependent on the platforms’ tolerance for sexual expression and nudity. Sometimes sudden changes in community guidelines are carried out without any user consultation or control. For example, the LGBTQ+ community was particularly harmed when Tumblr decided not to allow Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content anymore and Facebook banned “sexual solicitation” on its services.

Another example of companies’ policies affecting transgender people specifically is the rising trend of applying strict real-name policies online. The authentication requirement based on official ID documents prevents transgender people to use their new name and identity. For many of them, notably those living in repressive countries, it is difficult to obtain the change of their name and gender markers. As a consequence, they see their accounts deleted on a regular basis, after a few months of use, losing all their content and contacts. With little chance to retrieve their accounts, their freedoms online are severely hindered.

There is no such thing as a safe space online

Even when LGBTQ+ people leave the social media giants, they cannot necessarily turn to a safer platform online. Grindr, the biggest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people, was used by Egyptian authorities to track down and persecute LGBTQ+ people. Using fake profiles, the police is able to collect evidence, imprison, torture and prosecute for illegal sexual behaviour. This led to a chilling effect on the community, reluctant to engage in new encounters.

Other dangerous practices imply the outing of LGBTQ+ people online. For instance, a Twitter account was purposely set up in Paraguay to expose people’s sexual orientation by extracting revealing contents, such as nude pictures posted on Grindr, and posting them publicly. Despite many appeals made against the account, it disseminated content during six weeks before the platform finally deleted it. The damages for the victims are long-term and irreparable. This is, in particular, the cases in countries where there is no hate crime legislation, or where this legislation is not fully implemented, resulting in impunity for State and non-State actor’s homophobic and transphobic violence.

Technology is not neutral

The way those services and apps are built with poor security levels reflects their Western-centric, heteronormative and gender-biased nature. This endangers already vulnerable LGBTQ+ communities when they develop globally and become viral, especially in the Global South. Technologies, in particular emerging ones, can be misused to discriminate. For instance, a facial recognition system has been trained to recognise homosexual people based on their facial features. Not only the purpose of this technology is dubious, but it is also dangerous if scaled up and lands in the hands of repressive governments.

The main problem is that communities are not involved in the production stages. It’s hard to incentivise profit-driven companies to change their services according to specific needs while maintaining them free and accessible for all. Marginalised groups can usually not afford additional premium security features. Furthermore, the developers community remains in the majority white, middle aged and heterosexual, with little understanding of the local realities and dangers in other regions in the world. Encouraging LGBTQ+ people with diverse regional backgrounds to join this community would improve sensibly the offer of community-led, free, open and secure services. A lot remains to be made to push companies to engage with affected communities in order to develop tools that are privacy friendly and inclusive-by-design.

A leading good example is the Grindr initiative by EDRi member ARTICLE 19 that includes the ability to change the app’s icon appearance and the addition of a password security lock to better protect LGBTQ+ users.

This article is based on an interview of Eduardo Carrillo, digital LGBTQI+ activist in Paraguay and project director at TEDIC. TEDIC applies a gender perspective to its work on digital rights and carries out support activities for the local LGBTQ+ community to mitigate the discrimination it encounters.

In this article, we use the term LGBTQ+ to designate Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals, Queers, and all the other gender identities and sexual orientations that do not correspond to the heterosexual and cisgender (when the gender identity of a person matches the sex assigned at birth) norms.

Women’s rights online: tips for a safer digital life (08.03.2019)

How to retrieve our account on Facebook: Online censorship of the LGBTQI community (02.05.2018)

App Security Flaws Could Create Added Risks for LGBTQI Communities (17.12.2018)

No, Facebook’s updated sex policy doesn’t prohibit discussing your sexual orientation (06.12.2018)

Designing for the crackdown (25.4.2018)

(Contribution by Chloe Berthélémy, EDRi)