In an unprecedented move for a multi-cultural tourism destination, Malaysia has begun to block Internet access to public information about HIV/AIDS and LGBT travel, effecting busy travel hubs like Kuala Lumpur’s International airport and creating digital roadblocks for citizens throughout the country.
On May 4, Sinar Project, a Malaysian media watchdog, reported the country’s first known online censorship of an LGBT-specific community travel website, Utopia-Asia.com, which TMNet, a Malaysian Internet Service provider, began blocking in April without explanation.
Ooni Explorer, a global observation network for detecting censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation on the Internet, found that TMNet was engaging in DNS tampering by re-routing Utopia Asia’s domain name to display a false notice and deceive customers in Malaysia into thinking those resources no longer existed.
“Is your website down? I cannot access Utopia-Asia.com in Malaysia any longer,” wrote confused netizen, Ian T. “My browser displays a ‘server error 404 – file or directory not found’ message.”
Utopia Asia, based in Bangkok, has hosted the oldest and largest HIV/AIDS information and news archives for the region since 1995. The website also provides extensive information for travelers and locals alike, such as hotels, restaurants, NGOs, clubs and social opportunities in 20 Asian countries.
David H., a traveler in Malaysia, posted on Utopia Asia’s Facebook page, “I’m currently at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and can’t access Utopia-Asia.com with either airport Wi-Fi or Starbucks Wi-Fi. Come on Starbucks, why are you blocking the LGBT community? Oddly, gay dating apps with much raunchier content are let through! Feeling angry.”
In mid-2012, Indonesian ISPs began blocking websites with non-pornographic LGBT content. In the years following, local activists and international rights organizations have sounded the alarm about growing harassment, threats, and attempts to punish or criminalize LGBT who previously were protected by law and largely accepted by tolerant traditional cultures. Now, Malaysia seems to be copycatting its neighbor.
“When LGBT people travel, local community information including the HIV situation is critical, ” said Paul Causey, an HIV Community Consultant for 30 years with special focus on Asia/Pacific. “Utopia Asia has been an important educational ally since its beginning. It also helps isolated, suffering people to feel a part of a larger community, especially true for the lesbian, gay and transgender men and women in Malaysia where discrimination has now become appalling.”
“It’s telling that Malaysia, rather than banning hardcore sex sites, decided to bully an LGBT community page recommended over the years by TIME Magazine, The New York Times and Lonely Planet,” said John Goss, who founded Utopia Asia with Thai and Singaporean partners 24 years ago to help create positive social alternatives for LGBT in the region.
“This move is especially egregious,” said Goss, “because Utopia – a free, non-pornographic public resource – is designed to help improve people’s lives. Malaysia should worry about the corrosion of human rights and rising religious intolerance, rather than which healthcare providers, hotels or restaurants welcome gays. Otherwise they will be implicated in the growing humanitarian crisis in their own back yard and that’s going to dent their tourism dollars.”