In Fall 2016, I successfully defended my dissertation on Internet policy and LGBTQ expression online. With the guidance of my dissertation chair, Prof. Laura DeNardis and my committee members, Prof. Kathryn Montgomery, Prof. Deen Freelon and Prof. Jessie Daniels (CUNY, Public Health, Sociology and Critical Psychology), my research analyzed how corporate and government actors shape LGBTQ rights and expression online based on their decisions related to Internet policy and technological designs.

Internet Policy Designs as “Infrastructures of LGBTQ Expression” – Internet Governance as a Minority Rights Issue

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Scholarship on LGBTQ expression online has primarily focused on the opportunities and challenges awaiting LGBTQ people in the digital sphere. This dissertation addresses the distinct issue of Internet policy designs governing LGBTQ expression, privacy and safety in the online environment. The project examines how both government and private actors shape the policy infrastructures underlying LGBTQ expression. Furthermore, this research explores the role of civil society actors and online users in intervening in debates over policy designs. Viewing minority expression online through a lens of Internet governance and STS (science, technology and society) studies, discussion focuses on how Internet policy is moving to the center of debates over LGBTQ expression.

Research is based on a mixed methods approach. Qualitative interviews with Internet policy experts, advocates and a select number of industry representatives explored the extent to which government and private entities account for the needs of minority users such as LGBTQ people in Internet policy debates. A policy analysis of companies’ privacy policies and user agreements and analysis of other organizatonal materials added further support to these objectives. Complementing these qualitative approaches, a quantitative content analysis of user-generated content posted to Yelp and other review services investigated the extent to which online users repurpose platforms to express dissent, as well as the role of Internet companies in arbitrating these conflicts based on their user policies. Research findings informed several policy recommendations that could help create Internet policy designs supportive of minority users.

In the context of public policy, results indicate that LGBTQ expression can become both an intentional and unintentional target of censorship, exemplified by content blocking efforts under Russia’s “anti-propaganda” laws and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in the United States. Results further suggest that policy debates on Internet governance issues such as global phenomena of data localization requirements and net neutrality rulings have significant implications for LGBTQ people, highlighting the need for greater attention to minority users in these debates.

In regards to company policies, the project discusses mainstream Internet companies such as Facebook and Google as well as Grindr and other geolocational dating apps catering to LGBTQ communities and their role in arbitrating user rights. A first example illustrates debates over the termination of Facebook user accounts in violation of the company’s real name policy, as well as the influential role of San Francisco’s drag community in bringing the issue to public attention. Discussion of Grindr and other LGBTQ dating apps shows how these companies mediate tensions between creating community networks and privacy and safety concerns arising out of geolocational data collection. Analysis of review services as platforms for LGBTQ dissent indicate that non-transparent policy enforcement mechanisms allow for little insight into companies intervention in social conflicts playing out on these sites. Policy recommendations for a minority friendly Internet include greater user control over personal data collection, increased collaboration between industry actors and minority advocates, as well as greater public and industry commitment to end-to-end encryption.