May 23, 2022 - Technology

New spotlight on Meta's ban of workers' abortion posts

Illustration of a speech balloon with a lock inside it, which unlocks.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Discussions of abortion are posing big problems for some Big Tech companies, not just on their platforms but inside their walls.

Driving the news: With the Supreme Court readying to let states ban abortion, Meta last week reminded employees of a 2019 policy that bars discussion of the topic on the internal discussion system that runs the company, Workplace, per reporting from the Verge and the Washington Post.

Why it matters: As the likely reversal of Roe v. Wade looms, social media platforms' internal and external policies will once again shape the currents of a red-hot public debate.

Yes, but: Companies that rushed to embrace Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder are trying their best to keep this issue at arm's length, for the moment.

  • Another test will arrive for them once the court rules.

Details: Meta/Facebook's "Respectful Communication Policy," per a copy seen by Axios, bars the following from official workplace channels:

  • "opinions or debates about abortion being right or wrong, availability or rights of abortion, and political, religious, and humanitarian views on the topic (puts down various groups; highly divisive)."
  • "sharing a personal experience about abortion in order to persuade or dissuade others to or from taking a certain position on the topic."

The policy allows "sharing a personal experience about abortion with a trusted colleague, in a private setting (e.g., private 1:1 meeting or chat), for support" and "Showing empathy or support towards a colleague in response to their voluntarily shared personal abortion experience, in a private setting."

  • It's not clear whether the policy extends to discussing abortion as part of product-related decision making, including responding to law enforcement information requests and making content moderation choices. Facebook declined to answer that question.

Meta also allows employees to post about abortion on their personal Facebook accounts.

  • COO Sheryl Sandberg posted on May 3, "This is a scary day for women all across our country. If the leaked draft opinion becomes the law of the land, one of our most fundamental rights will be taken away."

The big picture: Major tech companies, including Meta, have often been outspoken about some human rights issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement and policies that affect the LGBTQ+ community.

  • Meta employees are allowed to discuss these issues on Workplace, along with immigration, vaccinations, school choice and gun control, per the policy.

Meta's policy does not seem to be common among the other biggest U.S. tech companies.

  • A Google spokesperson told Axios the company asks employees to speak to each other with respect, but has advised nothing specific about abortion.
  • Apple has not barred employees from talking about abortion on workplace channels, a source familiar with the company told Axios.
  • Microsoft did not provide comment. Amazon did not reply to a request for comment.

Be smart: Abortion was never one of the issues the tech industry thought of as its own. But every tech giant now faces a slew of decisions on health coverage for employees, content moderation for users, and workplace conduct around a controversial topic.

  • All these firms are under intense scrutiny by regulators and legislators and compete fiercely for talented employees in a tight labor market.

Between the lines: Per the Verge, Meta’s VP of HR, Janelle Gale, told a Meta all-hands meeting on Thursday: “Even if people are respectful, and they’re attempting to be respectful about their view on abortion, it can still leave people feeling like they’re being targeted based on their gender or religion... It’s the one unique topic that kind of trips that line on a protected class pretty much in every instance.”

  • Private employers generally have the right to regulate employee speech as they see fit, legal experts told Axios.
  • But discussing abortion as it relates to employee benefits, like potential payments for out-of-state-travel for abortion care, could tip into the protected speech arena per the National Labor Relations Act, which protects speech around benefits and unionization, Cynthia Estlund, a labor and employment professor at NYU, told Axios.
  • Meta's policy "strikes me as strange considering what the last two years have looked like from a social justice standpoint," Tawny Alvarez, an employment lawyer at New England-based firm Verrill, told Axios. "It would be, in my mind, similar to saying you can't talk about vaccines on Workplace because we understand that some people don't believe the vaccine is effective."

Our thought bubble: On this topic, Meta, often accused of anti-conservative bias by the right and under-moderation by the left, may simply be mirroring the rest of the corporate world's reluctance to engage with abortion at all.

  • Fast Company recently asked large U.S. firms where they stand on abortion access and what they plan to do if Roe falls. It got responses from only 15 of 200 companies.
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