Three years ago, the dating app Tinder, renowned for facilitating casual sexual encounters, presented TinderPlus, a paid premium service which offers, among many other things, a "passport" that allows you to roam and meet users worldwide.
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Amitay Dan, a cybersecurity researcher in Israel, recently discovered that he could use Tinder to “reach” places that few Israelis would think of visiting. But he also found that even the “entire world” includes virtual borders that can’t be crossed, which are apparently right around the corner.
Like many modern dating services, Tinder offers its users potential matches based on location. The novelty of Tinder's Passport is that it allows them to use the app as though they were in another city or country, getting to know love-starved people there – a great service for anyone planning a trip to a distant location and looking for someone to spend the night with, or more.
"With Passport, we've created an entirely new way to facilitate global connections on mobile. Passport lets you change your location to connect with people anywhere around the world," is how Tinder explains the service. “It's like teleporting to a different location. Search by city or drop a pin on the map and you can begin swiping, matching and chatting with Tinder users in a destination of your choice."
“A few months ago I was persuaded that Tinder is the new bar, the ultimate meeting place," Dan wrote on his blog. "The stigma didn’t bother me. I was more worried about privacy implications, but curiosity got the better of me and I joined.” After a while he decided to test Passport as well.
“After visiting countries such as Cyprus and Bulgaria I was curious to see what’s going on with our neighbors in Gaza," he wrote. "Does anyone there dare use an app that challenges conventional morality? I wanted to know what the situation is in countries that don’t admit Israeli citizens, or ones that are more totalitarian, such as North Korea. What is the attitude towards sexual openness between people there – is it like in [George] Orwell’s 1984?”
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He visited North Korea but didn't find a single match, even within a radius of dozens of miles outside the capital, Pyongyang. There was no problem in visiting Iran or the Gulf states.
Cultural differences between places are already evident in the users' Tinder profiles, Dan told Haaretz. In countries such as the United Arab Emirates, the women he encountered were looking for husbands, but in Iran he discovered men and women who were more relaxed and open to casual relationships.
Dr. Thamar Eilam Gindin is not surprised by this. Gindin, an Iran expert at the Shalem Academic Center and Haifa University's Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, said that according to what she's been told by young people in Tehran, the casual sex scene there could put even Tel Aviv to shame. She thought it would be harder to find premium service users there due to the difficulty of getting an international credit card in Iran.
She noted that Iran’s image as a benighted state ruled by Shi’ite zealots is only part of the picture. “We have a long way to go until we’re like Iran," she said. "Let's talk after we have free commerce on Saturdays, circumcisions only by physicians, civil marriage, favoring women in divorce cases or making it easier for working mothers.”
Swiping right in the West Bank
Shaked Orbach, who assisted in researching this story, says that Tinder usage in the West Bank is blossoming, but it's harder to find premium service users. According to a Gaza resident, there is a lively casual sex scene in Gaza as well, but it is difficult to find Tinder users among his friends. Using the premium service is definitely out of the question.
When Dan wanted to visit Gaza he encountered another problem: a digital border. The app displayed a “Cannot change location” error. The same thing happened when he tried to visit the West Bank.
Tinder, when asked about the message, rolled the ball over to Google, whose maps it relies on. Google received the query but did not respond.
When one thinks of encounters between Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, it’s hard not to think of Ofir Rahum, the teenager who was lured to a meeting by a Palestinian woman named Mona Awana, where he was murdered by her accomplices. Awana was sentenced to life in prison but was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.
When murder is the automatic association, it sounds almost reasonable to block the border, but this angle for looking at the situation could be too narrow.
How pragmatism becomes a digital siege
If the reason for the segregation was really for personal security, then regular Tinder users would not be able to look for love on the other side of the separation barrier. But for users of Tinder's free version, the only limitations apply to age, gender and distance, which the user can set – so someone in Jerusalem can see profiles in the nearby West Bank.
The default radius for distance is 55 kilometers (about 35 miles), but can be increased up to 160 or reduced to only 2; the difference with the free version is that it's impossible to switch between countries – or, if you're in Be'er Sheva in the south of the country, to expand your reach to the Golan Heights in the north.
But the wider your distance radius, the harder it is to filter people out; be prepared to burn a lot of time and gas. The advantage of Passport is that you can be more specific. Someone from Tel Aviv who will be in Katzrin in the Golan would be able to prepare in advance.
"It may seem normal to you, but think about the significance of blocking such a service for entire population groups,” says Dan. “It's not about economic damage, but about preventing the use of certain parts of the dating app based on location, simply because you were born in the wrong place. Personally, I have never run into such a case of digital boycott. I know of stores that don’t ship to Israel, and define it as Palestine. But here, it's more about keeping avatars from controversial regions, or more crudely, a digital blockade.”
Those who see the situation only through a political lens sometimes forget that certain groups want and can meet – for example, Palestinians from the West Bank and those who live in Israel, or foreign tourists.
“This is a political agenda in every way,” says Admit Ivgi, an attorney who specializes in technology and cyber law. “This is not an area with a purely Palestinian population. In the Gilo neighborhood [of Jerusalem], too, for example, Tinder divides the place into permitted and forbidden. This is more than just a small attempt to prevent Israelis and Palestinians from being together. This is discrimination in every way,” she said. This affects Jews who want to meet other Jews living in the settlements in exactly the same way it affects Palestinians, said Ivgi.
The Tinder borders seem to follow the Green Line, the armistice line set in an agreement between Israel and its neighbors in 1949 after the War of Independence. It was the country's de facto border until 1967. The Golan Heights, parts of which was annexed by Israel in 1981, are outside Passport's borders as well. This applies not just to Israelis; a visitor to Israel with a Tinder account from Europe tried to switch his location to the Golan could not do so either.
"This is yet another case that demonstrates the importance of technology in structuring geo-political borders”, said Dr. Anat Ben-David from Sociology, Political Studies and Media Department at the Open University of Israel. This approach is hardly surprising, she added, “because it’s just another in a long line of location-based services that shut down or change certain features when it comes to areas of conflict.”
“Sometimes these changes stem from services' adaptation of local laws, like the prohibition of entry of Israelis to Area A and Waze’s default settings that don’t supply geographic information on routes that pass beyond the Green Line. Sometimes it’s the platforms’ stand that stems from technological pragmatism that is aimed at the widest-possible consensus of user bases, and not necessarily out of coherent ideology,” she said.
This seems to be just another chapter in Google’s long and peculiar history with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another pragmatic attempt to dodge the issues and keep out of the political controversy, but it does not always work, and for good reason. Every change is seen by both sides as supporting one or the other and immediately leads to protests from both.
Shakked Auerbach contributed to this article.