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Treacherous Internet: Cyber-Criminalization of LGBT People

Published in: Advocate
© 2023 Christina Atik for Human Rights Watch

When I was researching the digital targeting of LGBT people across the Middle East and North Africa region, I spoke to Yamen, a gay man from Jordan. He told me that he was extorted online by another man, who was threatening to post a compromising video of Yamen on social media, and that his biggest regret was going to the authorities to seek protection. Instead of prosecuting the extortionist, a Jordanian court sentenced Yamen to six months in prison for “promoting prostitution online,” based on the country’s 2015 cybercrime law.

Yamen’s experience is not an isolated incident. In recent years, many MENA region governments, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, have introduced cybercrime laws that target dissent and undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Cybercrime laws often establish new investigative powers, including allowing authorities to intercept, retain, and access people’s data. Obtaining data from online services such as social media platforms can be essential for prosecuting cybercrime, but only if these powers come with essential due process protections.

These laws, combined with existing laws that criminalize same-sex conduct, “morality” clauses, or prostitution laws, have also created a treacherous climate in which LGBT people can be prosecuted merely for expressing themselves online, even in countries that do not criminalize same-sex relations. In addition, a proposed global cybercrime treaty would facilitate international cooperation on a range of technology-facilitated activities a government criminalizes domestically—even if in violation of human rights. These domestic laws may carry a penalty of at least three or four years in prison, which could lead to the prosecution of LGBT people across borders.

Take Mohamed al-Bokari, a Yemeni activist who traveled on foot from Yemen to Saudi Arabia after armed groups threatened to kill him due to his online activism and gender non-conformity. While living in Riyadh, he posted a video on Twitter declaring his support for LGBT rights. Saudi authorities then charged him with “promoting homosexuality online” under the cybercrime law and sentenced him to 10 months in prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for weeks, subjected to a forced anal exam, and repeatedly beaten.

Some governments are making online self-expression a crime specifically for LGBT people. In Iraq, parliament passed a dangerous anti-LGBT law in April as an amendment to the country’s existing anti-prostitution law. In addition to punishing same-sex relations with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, the new law provides for 7 years in prison for “promoting homosexuality,” including through online platforms.

When I documented the killings, abductions, sexual violence, and torture of LGBT people by armed groups in Iraq, I quickly realized that online threats, in many cases based on victims’ social media activity, often preceded brutal offline violence, showcasing the lethal connection between digital harassment and physical harm. The new law legitimizes the discrimination fueling this rampant violence against LGBT people, not only criminalizing their existence, but also anything they have to say about it online.

Governments are the primary duty bearers responsible for protecting human rights, including on the internet. But in the MENA region and beyond, the authorities weaponize online activity to justify their persecution of LGBT people. This is compounded by the failure of major digital platforms like Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to address and effectively mitigate the harm stemming from abusive use of their services. Despite numerous reports of online harassment and abusive content, platforms like Facebook and Instagram often fail to act, leaving LGBT users vulnerable to further harm.

That is why in 2024, Human Rights Watch initiated the “Secure Our Socials” campaign. It aims to engage Facebook and Instagram to be more transparent and accountable by publishing meaningful data on investment in user safety, including regarding content moderation in the MENA region and around the world. The campaign also offers a variety of possible solutions for Meta to keep LGBT people safe on its platforms.

The campaign builds on the 2023 digital targeting report, for which I interviewed 120 LGBT people in five countries, many of whom reported complaining about online harassment and abusive content to Facebook and Instagram. But the platforms did not remove the content in any of these cases, claiming it did not violate their community standards or guidelines.

Such content included outing, doxxing, and death threats, which in many cases resulted in severe offline consequences for LGBT people. Not only did Meta’s moderation systems fail to detect this content, but even when it was reported, Meta was ineffective in removing harmful content. A timely response could have limited offline harm. Social media companies, including significant players like Meta, should prioritize the security and rights of all users, ensuring that their platforms do not become tools for persecution.

The fight against the cyber-criminalization of LGBT people is not only about legal reform but also about creating safer, more inclusive digital spaces. Yamen’s and al-Bokari’s accounts reveal a harsh reality faced by many, where seeking protection or expressing one’s identity can lead to imprisonment and violence.

By addressing both the legal structures that outlaw LGBT people, and digital platforms that enable persecution, we can begin to dismantle digital oppression and create safe avenues for everyone’s, including LGBT people’s, free expression.

This essay is part of a series marking the 20th anniversary of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. The collection of articles explores the multifaceted challenges LGBT people face globally. Find them here.

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