An increase in anti-LGBTQ+ intolerance is impacting individuals and communities both online and offline across the globe. Throughout 2023, several countries sought to pass explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives restricting freedom of expression and privacy. This fuels offline intolerance against LGBTQ+ people, and forces them to self-censor their online expression to avoid being profiled, harassed, doxxed, or criminally prosecuted.
One growing threat to LGBTQ+ people is data surveillance. Across the U.S., a growing number of states prohibited transgender youths from obtaining gender-affirming health care, and some restricted access for transgender adults. For example, the Texas Attorney General is investigating a hospital for providing gender-affirming health care to transgender youths. We can expect anti-trans investigators to use the tactics of anti-abortion investigators, including seizure of internet browsing and private messaging.
It is imperative that businesses are prevented from collecting and retaining this data in the first place, so that it cannot later be seized by police and used as evidence. Legislators should start with Rep. Jacobs’ My Body, My Data bill. We also need new laws to ban reverse warrants, which police can use to identify every person who searched for the keywords “how do I get gender-affirming care,” or who was physically located near a trans health clinic.
Moreover, LGBTQ+ expression was targeted by U.S. student monitoring tools like GoGuardian, Gaggle, and Bark. The tools scan web pages and documents in students’ cloud drives for keywords about topics like sex and drugs, which are subsequently blocked or flagged for review by school administrators. Numerous reports show regular flagging of LGBTQ+ content. This creates a harmful atmosphere for students; for example, some have been outed because of it. In a positive move, Gaggle recently removed LGBTQ+ terms from their keyword list and GoGuardian has done the same. But, LGBTQ+ resources are still commonly flagged for containing words like “sex,” “breasts,” or “vagina.” Student monitoring tools must remove all terms from their blocking and flagging lists that trigger scrutiny and erasure of sexual and gender identity.
Looking outside the U.S., LGBTQ+ rights were gravely threatened by expansive cybercrime and surveillance legislation in the Middle East and North Africa throughout 2023. For example, the Cybercrime Law of 2023 in Jordan, introduced as part of King Abdullah II’s modernization reforms, will negatively impact LGBTQ+ people by restricting encryption and anonymity in digital communications, and criminalizing free speech through overly broad and vaguely defined terms. During debates on the bill in the Jordanian Parliament, some MPs claimed that the new cybercrime law could be used to criminalize LGBTQ+ individuals and content online.
For many countries across Africa, and indeed the world, anti-LGBTQ+ discourses and laws can be traced back to colonial rule. These laws have been used to imprison, harass, and intimidate LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2023, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the extremely harsh Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. It imposes, for example, a 20-year sentence for the vaguely worded offense of “promoting” homosexuality. Such laws are not only an assault on the rights of LGBTQ+ people to exist, but also a grave threat to freedom of expression. They lead to more censorship and surveillance of online LGBTQ+ speech, the latter of which will lead to more self-censorship, too.
Ghana’s draft Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021 goes much further. It threatens up to five years in jail to anyone who publicly identifies as LGBTQ+ or “any sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female.” The bill assigns criminal penalties for speech posted online, and threatens online platforms—specifically naming Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—with criminal penalties if they do not restrict pro-LGBTQ+ content. If passed, Ghanaian authorities could also probe the social media accounts of anyone applying for a visa for pro-LGBTQ+ speech or create lists of pro-LGBTQ+ supporters to be arrested upon entry. EFF this year joined other human rights groups to oppose this law.
Taking inspiration from Uganda and Ghana, a new proposed law in Kenya—the Family Protection Bill 2023—would impose ten years imprisonment for homosexuality, and life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.” The bill also allows for the expulsion of refugees and asylum seekers who breach the law, irrespective of whether the conduct is connected with asylum requests. Kenya today is the sole country in East Africa to accept LGBTQ+ individuals seeking refuge and asylum without questioning their sexual orientation; sadly, that may change. EFF has called on the authorities in Kenya and Ghana to reject their respective repulsive bills, and for authorities in Uganda to repeal the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
2023 was a challenging year for the digital rights of LGBTQ+ people. But we are optimistic that in the year to come, LGBTQ+ people and their allies, working together online and off, will make strides against censorship, surveillance, and discrimination.
This blog is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2023.