Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Sochi, the “gay propaganda” law and the role of tech companies for global LGBT visibility
With the Closing Ceremony on February 23rd, Sochi 2014 came to an official end and the Winter Olympics will not only be remembered for outstanding athletic performances. In the light of Russia’s controversial “anti-gay propaganda” law, the Olympics once again became a platform for global political issues, with LGBT rights moving to the center of Sochi. While many hoped that athletes would use the Winter Olympics to speak out against the archaic law, Olympians were silenced by the Olympic Committee that declared that sports is not a forum for political protest. Others considered Sochi as a forum for LGBT activism, with tennis legend and member of the U.S. delegation, Billie Jean King expressing belief that “politics are in everything.” For those using Sochi as a platform to show solidarity for Russia’s LGBT community, the anti-gay legislation would prove to be a major backlash. On the opening day of Sochi, four protestors were arrested for holding up a banner referring to Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter denouncing any form of discrimination. Other activists that became victims of the controversial law were members of the punk band Pussy Riot and transgender Italian politician Vladimir Luxuria.
As the global LGBT community came together over the violation of human rights, media began to turn away. In their coverage of the Winter Olympics, the five networks affiliated with NBC spent about two hours discussing LGBT rights in Russia, with media attention gradually decreasing over the course of Sochi. Within the technology sector, some were more outspoken about their solidarity for Russia’s LGBT community. Telecommunications provider AT&T, a partner of the U.S. Olympic team, was the first international brand to speak out against human rights violations against LGBT Russians. In a statement released in the forefront of Sochi, AT&T declared that
“We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society. […] We also want to be on record with our support for the LGBT community, and we hope that others involved with the Olympic Games will do the same.”
On the opening day of Sochi, Google expressed support by dedicating a Google Doodle to LGBT Olympians. Against a background in the colors of the rainbow flag, the Doodle showed athletes performing different Winter Sport disciplines. At the bottom of the page, a quote of the Olympic Committee’s charter reminded of the role of sports as human rights.
In the fight for global LGBT rights, the 2014 Winter Olympics afforded a critical forum to show the international outcry over Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda”-law. With tech companies like AT&T and Google serving as high profile allies for LGBT Russians, we need to ensure that the support does not stop with the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics. A critical issue that needs to be addressed within the tech industry is the threat to the online visibility of Russia’s LGBT community under the anti-gay law. Only a few months after the homophobic law went into effect, the LGBT platform gay.ru was investigated by the country’s communications authorities. While Roskomnadzor found that the website did not violate the “gay propaganda” law, Google Russia took a precarious step against the online visibility of Russia’s LGBT community. Presumably a response to the country’s adoption of the anti-gay law, Google Russia no longer showed the community platform in its news feed.
Recent media reports have also highlighted that Children 404, a community website catering to LGBT teens, could become the latest victim of Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” law.Considering the central role of the Internet for community building and identity work, the potential censorship of community-related websites is a fatal violation of freedom of expression and LGBT rights more specifically. More than ever, tech companies need to stand strong with the LGBT community in Russia and beyond. Information intermediaries need to show true solidarity for LGBT Russians by pushing back on both self-censorship and delegated censorship. At the same time, we also need to pay close attention to online presence of LGBT communities in other nations, ensuring visibility in times of tragic human rights violations against the global movement.