Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Internet? Internet Regulation and the Queer Movement in Lebanon

Context

The EROTICS research in Lebanon investigated the relationship between the internet in Lebanon and the queer women’s movement since the late 1990s till the present day. It aimed to examine the history and strategies of internet usage by queer women in order to better understand the enabling environment of a free and open internet in Lebanon, which is in contrast to highly censoredinternet in neighbouring Arab countries. The research also looked at the usage of information and communication technologies (ICT) to express sexual identities, negotiate anonymity and privacy online, organise and vocalise queer issues within the Arab blogosphere. In 2010, the intersection of a communications rights movement and the queer women’s movement became tangible with the sudden proposal of an ICT law to censor and regulate Lebanese internet. This movement to control the internet, influenced by regional and global politics, thus became asignificant part of the research.

The arrival of the internet in the late 1990s provided a much-needed platform of anonymity and secrecy for gay and lesbian individuals to search for each other using international gay websites. Soon after, Lebanese websites, chat rooms, mailing lists and other online technologies were created by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender) individuals to provide community services, which mostly revolved around dating and chatting. As internet technologies became more sophisticated, in parallel, the LGBT community grew in numbers and political will. The community became more organised and more strategic in its use of the internet to achieve its goals. The women in particular, who started out as a lesbian community project in the mid-2000s and morphed into a queer feminist movement over the years, have had a mutually influential relationship with the Lebanese internet landscape.

The research in Lebanon is a first of its kind. The research team was composed mostly of queer activists, who have been first hand witnesses and agents of the movement in various capacities. The team included 6 interviewers / transcribers and two writers. The research started in August 2009 and ended in August 2010. The process took place on two planes of activity that we try to show to be highly inter-related: the Lebanese queer women’s movement and the ICT environment in Lebanon.

First we studied the ICT environment as an independent sphere and aimed to flesh out its dynamics with issues of regulation, monitoring, and censorship as central components. A number of stakeholders were interviewed including policy experts, bloggers, digital activists andhackers. We also looked at literature that explained regulation methods, political agreements and legal charges related to the internet.

In parallel we studied the queer women’s movement in Lebanon by looking in particular at its ICT usage,strategies and reflections. We interviewed 12 women activists who identified as queer, aged between 20 and 35. The questions were divided into two sections: first, their personal relationship with the internet; and second, their activist strategies, detailing how each different ICT came into use and/or faded out of usage. We also interviewed 4 gay men activists to examine the gender component of ICT usage within the mainstream, male-dominated LGBT movement. The in-depth interviews served as the basis of the research analysis, along with literature reviews of studies and press articles, and writings of the queer women’s community in the form of articles, blog posts and a book.

Who is watching the internet?

At first glance, Lebanese internet looked like a free and open medium but further research quickly revealed the vulnerability of online freedoms and the rising influence of movements to control internet usage in three main ways:

  • First: Legal restrictions were extended to the internet realm arbitrarily and involved lawsuits or arrests based on things like Facebook comments, registering domain names and blog posts. This is despite that there is no clear law that governs the internet.
  • Second: In the midst of strongly censored neighbours like Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Lebanon enjoys an online freedom that is hampered strongly by a very slow and very expensive internet connection. Lebanon is currently ranked among the lowest in the world in terms of download (rank: 165 / 178) and upload (rank:175 / 178) speeds. Online activists have speculated that the slow internet is in itself a form of censorship.
  • Third: Monitoring rates are very high. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Lebanon are legally required to monitor and maintain logs of all sites visited by their users for two years. Research also revealed that the United States was granted access to the Lebanese communications network (TETRA) as part of a “donation deal” with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). TETRA gives access to mobile and land communications and alsoprovides the Geographic Information System - a system that contains all the geographical data such as streets, buildings, banks, embassies and main internal security quarters. This access to information can be considered a major breach of national security because of the US relations with Israel, an enemy state of Lebanon. In addition, the USAID funding agreement includes policy recommendations to limit internet access for child protection reasons, which could have censorship implications on all sexuality-related material.

In June 2010,a draft internet law was suddenly placed for vote in the Lebanese parliament. It suggested the establishment of an Electronic Signatures and Services Authority that would have legal powers to access information on citizens’ internet usage, their personal accounts, confiscate laptops and other equipment and monitor online content. Although the law was proposed arbitrarily (it was literally randomly pulled out of a four-year-old pile of draft laws), it demonstrated two important things:

  • The vulnerability of the Lebanese internet freedoms. Activists speculated that improvements to theinfrastructure would lead to a flourishing e-commerce industry, which would then lead to lobby for stricter online control and legal surveillance.
  • The effective presence of the queer lobby within the movement for communications rights. Queer activists were quick to raise concerns about censorship of issues related to sexuality and ramifications for the LGBT movement.

Thanks to the lobby work of the alliance of digital activists and organisations, the law did not pass the parliamentary vote and was adjourned for further discussion.

Online by force, online by choice: “We must write”

We noticed a major shift in strategy in the historical relationship of the queer movement with the internet over the past twelve years. LGBT activists began their work online in chat rooms, websites and mailing lists by force because of their limited access to public spheres dominated by homophobia that could lead to socialstigma and/or imprisonment. They had few other choices. In 2003 to 2007, there was a strong offline emergence of LGBT visibility: clubs, restaurants, organisations, events, media appearances and other such public activities. The attitude towards online queer spaces switched to disdain. Gay chat rooms and profile websites were seen as “trashy” and as serving the sole purpose of meeting for sex.

In 2008, we saw a strong return (led by women) to the internet as the primary site of organising, less by force now and more by a strategic choice of the internet as a valuable and important medium. Queer women used a large variety of available internet communication technologies to express their sexualities, tell their stories, raise awareness, demand equality and reach out to other women to join the community. With the rise in the power of user-generated online content, the blogosphere and citizen journalism, queer women chose to create their own e-media channels rather than rely on traditional journalism to address queer issues.

Also noticeable from the interviews with queer women activists was their unified - almost obsessive - strategy of self-representation as one of the most important parts of their work. “We must write” was seen as a powerful mantra and was the driving force behind the creation of a weekly online magazine, Bekhsoos.com. It also overrode other more mainstream and traditional LGBT strategies such as coming out, pride parades and seeking public visibility. The production of written, graphic and multimedia content of everything from personal lesbian narratives to political queer analysis became the key strategy of the queer women’s movement. This was possible because of the community members’ advanced abilities to use online software and social networks while maintaining privacy and safety of their members online. The drive to self-represent was also the result of geopolitical struggles and as an important response to the perceived strong imperialist movement to speak on behalf of Arab women and queers.

Queer women activists became active in techie - or technically-skilled and centred - collectives and onlineforums, often presenting themselves under the umbrella of sexual rights movements, aligning themselves with anti-censorship Arab movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. They were thus able to promote censorship circumvention techniques to users who wanted to access gay and lesbian websites in high-censorship cities. Most ISPs in the Arab world automatically block gay and lesbian material by keyword. For example, Bekhsoos.com articles are consequently blocked by most connections. However, the site has its own Facebook page and twitter account that promote alternative methods of accessing its content through RSS subscriptions. Most activists interviewed - from both the techie and queer pool - agreed that internet censorship is useless because users will always find methods to bypass the censorship.

Opportunities for influencing policy and/or practice

Because of the strong homophobic environment of other countries in the region, the argument that an open internet has facilitated a strong LGBT movementin Lebanon would actually play in favour of censorship policies in other Arab countries, rather than influence decision-makers to abandon censorship. The research presents strong findings, however, to argue for an open internet in places where decision-makers actually value LGBT rights as human rights. It also makes a strong case against keyword or URL filtering based on sexually explicitmaterial and attempts to show how queers and feminists in Lebanon are defining “harmful content” and the work they are doing to promote sex-positive attitudes in their region.

Finally, the findings of the Lebanon EROTICS research are particularly useful to influence activist strategies around sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) because it presents the history and practice of a successful model of organising for LGBT rights. The model presented did not depend on coming out (which could be deadly in many Arab societies) and focused strongly on personal privacy and safety, while still putting out useful information, facilitating safe meeting spaces, empowering individuals, providing services and becoming a powerful movement.

Read the full Lebanon country report:
Lebanon: Who’s afraid of the big bad internet?
Nadine Moawad and Tamara Qiblawi