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  5. Apple's Russian virtual assistant Siri have a problem with gays

Alex, a Russian speaker noticed responses from Russian Siri and posted a video on YouTube about it.

BBC News Services

When a Russian speaker tried to chat to Apple's virtual assistant Siri about gay clubs, he got an unusual response - which Apple maintains was due to a bug.


A video posted earlier this week showing a conversation in Russian between Siri and a man who identifies himself as Alex has now been widely shared on YouTube and Reddit. Here's a translation:

Alex: "Siri, gay clubs around me?

Siri: "I would have turned red (blushed) if I could."

Alex: "How to register a gay marriage in the UK?"

Siri: [Silence]

Alex: "How to register a gay marriage in the UK?"

Siri: "I will pretend I haven't heard it."

You get the idea.

Apple says Siri's responses were the result of a bug that has since been fixed. But the online discussion in English reflected the fact that gay rights and homophobia in Russia are now an issue very much discussed in the outside world. There was an assumption that Siri had been deliberately set up this way to comply with Russian law. "Apple is required to conform to the law of the land in order to sell devices in a place. Recognizing that is realism, not cynicism," said one Reddit user. Comments in Russian were much more angry in tone - some homophobic and others questioning Western interest in the subject.

Alex, who's originally from Russia but now lives in the UK, told BBC Trending that he discovered Russian Siri's "attitude" by accident. "I was out with friends who'd updated their phones to the latest version of iOS," he said. "Russian Siri was one of the new features available. So we made queries using the word 'gay' and got very weird replies. We also got similar responses with the word 'lesbian'," he says.

A BBC Russian team asked Siri similar questions and got the same response. You can read their article about it (in Russian) here.

Gay rights are a contentious subject in Russia, after a law banning gay "propaganda" was passed in 2013. It prohibits people from giving information about homosexuality to those under 18.

"I can understand if a company needs to adapt to the legislation of a country," says Alex. "Apple fixed it. But there hasn't been an explanation as to how it happened in the first place."

Blog by Anne-Marie Tomchak

The Council for Global Equality - The Facts on LGBT Rights in Russia

In recent months, public attention to the ongoing crackdown on LGBT rights in the Russian Federation and its potential impact on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in February 2014 has increased significantly.  President Obama addressed the issue on the Tonight Show, saying:

treated differently “I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being. They’re athletes, they’re there to compete. And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.” – President Obama

This fact sheet summarizes the developments in Russia and the guidance that we have received to date from our colleagues in Russia.

 LGBT People Are Being Targeted by Anti-LGBT Propaganda and Foreign Agents Laws

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia liberalized some of its anti-LGBT laws.  Most notably, homosexual relationships were decriminalized in 1993.  Transgender Russians have also been allowed to change their legal gender on identity documents since 1997, although there are many obstacles to the process and invasive surgical requirements remain in place.  Despite these liberalization trends during the immediate post-Soviet period, in recent years, Russian authorities have routinely denied permits for Pride parades, intimidated and arrested LGBT activists and condoned anti-LGBT statements by government officials. ILGA-Europe, the European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, rates Russia  as the least protective country in Europe for LGBT citizens, ranking it 49th out of the 49 European countries rated in its annual survey.

In June 2013, the Russian duma in Moscow passed a new law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships”to minors.  The new federal law is closely related to several regional laws that were already on the books, all of which seek to penalize “propaganda” of homosexuality, generally with the intent of “protecting” minors.  The city of Sochi, which is the site of the upcoming Winter Olympics, has one of those regional laws in place.  And while the regional laws are not uniform, like the new federal law, they all tend to advance vague definitions of propaganda that lend themselves to the targeting and ongoing persecution of the country’s LGBT community. The language of this new law focuses on “non-traditional” sexual relationships, to contrast with “traditional values” or “traditional family” language that Russia is promoting at the UN to oppose positive statements supporting the human rights of LGBT people. 

The federal anti-LGBT propaganda law, as signed by President Putin on June 29, entered into force in Russia on June 30 of this year.  (The official version in Russian is published here.)   In the federal law, propaganda is defined as: “distribution of information that is aimed at the formation among minors of nontraditional sexual attitudes, attractiveness of non- traditional sexual relations, misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or enforcing information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest to such relations . . . .”

The new law sets administrative fines for LGBT propaganda at 4,000 to 5,000 rubles for individuals (about $120 - $150 U.S. dollars) and up to 800,000 to 1 million rubles for NGOs, corporations or other legal entities (about $24,000 - $30,000 U.S. dollars).  More severe administrative fines are allowed for propaganda transmitted via the Internet or other media networks or by a foreign citizen.  Foreigners are also subject to 15 days of prison and deportation from Russia.   

It is too early to tell how aggressively the new federal law will be enforced, but several government officials have warned of a robust intent to enforce the legislation, including during the upcoming Sochi Olympics, and LGBT activists are themselves intent on challenging the law on human rights grounds.  Moreover, while the law suggests that only information directed at children should expose an individual or an organization to liability, prosecutions under similar laws in the regions have not dwelled on this nexus to children and the federal law’s heightened focus on the internet, where minors have an opportunity to view such information, suggest that the law could be applied broadly and with little regard to any notion of child protection.  LGBT citizens and activists in Russia are increasingly concerned, as this law is being implemented at a time and in an environment of increasing violence and hatred of LGBT individuals and as LGBT defenders are being subjected to fines and prosecutions as “foreign agents.”

A group of extremist organizations in the United States have signed a joint statement supporting the law, and the conservative, U.S.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute has been promoting it at the United Nations.