The end of gay social networking apps in Indonesia?

Author

Hendri Yulius is a researcher and writer. He is the author of a number of books, including Coming Out, now available at Gramedia. He holds a master's degree from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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The Ministry of Communications and Information has asked Apple and Google to remove Grindr, Blued and BoyAhoy from their app stores in Indonesia. Photo by Indonesia at Melbourne.

 

Police jumped on the bandwagon of hate directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) Indonesians last week, following allegations of the misuse of gay social networking applications for child prostitution. Under the guise of child protection, police urged the Ministry of Communication and Information to ban gay social networking applications. Following a meeting last week, the government announced it was moving ahead with plans to block three applications – Grindr, Blued and BoyAhoy – while more than 80 other LGBT applications and websites potentially face prosecution.

 

In addition to reasons of child protection, Aidil Chendramata, from the Ministry of Communication, also argued that gay applications violated the 2008 Pornography Law. Like any other social media, Grindr is intended for socialising and forging friendships or relationships, and, like other social media, it also has the potential for abuse. Facebook and Twitter, for example, are rife with pornographic images and Indonesian police have previously uncovered the use of Facebook to facilitate underage (heterosexual) prostitution.

 

Grindr and most other gay applications restrict use to those aged 18 or over. In some countries where the “age of majority” is older, Grindr’s terms of use even restrict the application to users aged 21 years and older. In Indonesia’s Child Protection Law (UU No. 23/2002), children are defined as “persons below 18 years old” so, when used as intended, Grindr should not affect the rights of children.

 

Putting these inconsistencies aside for a moment, the bans are representative of the government’s struggle to preserve power and authority in a globalised internet era. Just like many other countries, the Indonesian government in February pressed multinationals Google and Facebook to establish domestic entities (badan usaha tetap) and pay taxes to Indonesia. In addition to these economic demands, there have also been calls for multinational online companies to conform to Indonesian moral norms.

 

The globalised internet era has disembodied state power. In the past, power was highly centralised and top-down. These patterns have shifted dramatically — besides collapsing national boundaries, the internet has also produced virtual spaces for the transmission and circulation of knowledge, information and critical ideas. These spaces are much more difficult to control. Further, social media organisations, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, are not only international or transnational bodies. They are sometimes also perceived as “anti-national”, undermining state sovereignty, ideology, and even national security — consider how even Pokemon Go was recently viewed as a threat to national security.

 

In democratic Indonesia, online spaces have become arenas for political contestation. While public queer activities have often been targets of violent attacks by religious vigilante groups, online spaces have typically provided room for LGBT Indonesians to develop their community and make incremental changes through broadening awareness about sexual diversity. Online activism and platforms have (mostly) slipped under the radar of the government and conservative groups.

 

As LGBT politics and identities are increasingly viewed as another form of Western imperialism, virtual spaces have now become targets for surveillance by the government. Conflating child prostitution and immorality with consensual and private adult same-sex activities has allowed the government to justify further surveillance and control of private spaces.

 

It will be interesting to see whether Apple and Google will approve the request of the Indonesian government and remove the gay applications from their app stores. The companies are renowned champions of LGBT rights around the world and will no doubt face a dilemma over whether they protect their core values or bow to censorship requests. On Monday, it appeared that the Google Play store had blocked BoyAhoy, although others remained accessible.

 

The policing of these gay applications demonstrates that the rapid development of information technology does not necessarily lead to advances in freedom of expression. The malleability of concepts like porn, decency, morality, and national security allows the government to use them to exert control over certain groups. While LGBT Indonesians are the main target now, it is quite possible that a similar strategy will be applied to other minority groups. In other words, the struggle now is not only for LGBT groups. It is more than that. In a way, it is also for the protection of democracy in Indonesia.