Jul 1, 2022 - Technology

Next post-Roe battlefield: Online abortion information

Animated illustration of the Supreme Court's columns as computer text cursors.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Conservative activists, having won their goal of being able to criminalize abortion, are now aiming to limit or ban online information-sharing on the topic.

Driving the news: In the wake of the Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling overturning Roe V. Wade, tech platforms are already struggling to moderate abortion-related content and fight misinformation around the topic.

Why it matters: Those seeking to share information online about abortion, whether it's about the procedure itself or where to legally access it, will be in the crosshairs of restrictive state laws and changing social media policies.

What's happening: Confusion reigns around what can and can't be said about abortion in different online spaces.

  • Motherboard reported Monday that Facebook was "removing the posts of users who share status updates that say abortion pills can be mailed, and in some cases temporarily banning those users."
  • Meta, whose policies prohibit people from purchasing and selling "non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana" on the platform, said some posts were incorrectly removed.
  • Shout Your Abortion, a campaign that promotes abortion access and education, posted this week that Instagram was putting "sensitive material" warnings on posts mentioning abortion, abortion pills or criticizing the Supreme Court's decision. (Instagram tweeted it was looking into sensitivity labels being incorrectly used.)

What they're saying: "We are worried about censorship, we have been censored by social media sites already," Elisa Wells, director of Plan C, a website with information about medication abortion, told Axios. "We have a right to free speech to put this information out there."

  • "But we're still preparing for additional shutdowns of the flow of [information about access to abortion pills]," Wells said. "We're at a point where so many people are sharing the information that it becomes sort of unstoppable."
  • "If there is something [on a platform] that makes it look like [a platform] is facilitating criminal behavior, then they will have to take that seriously," Matt Perault, former head of global policy development at Meta, now director of the University of North Carolina's Center on Technology Policy, told Axios. "But platforms will also be under pressure to not silence facilitation of people seeking abortions in ways that are legitimate."

Misinformation is a problem, too. New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, wrote to Google this week asking the company to correct search results directing people seeking abortions to "dangerous and misleading anti-abortion clinics in New York" on Google Maps.

  • Online claims about abortion pills making women infertile or being deadly proliferate on online forums. Videos promoting unsafe methods of herbal abortion are popular on TikTok, Rolling Stone reported.

State of play: Beyond social media platforms' crackdown, conservative legislatures may pass laws criminalizing online speech about abortion on websites and internet services.

  • New anti-abortion model legislation from the National Right to Life Committee could put reporters writing about abortion information and anyone sharing information online about abortion at risk, news outlet Prism first reported early this week.
  • That model legislation, which the organization encourages states to adopt, would criminalize "aiding and abetting" an illegal abortion via instructions on the internet, and "hosting or maintaining a website that encourages or facilitates efforts to obtain an illegal abortion."
  • Already, Texas' anti-abortion law, SB8, enables individuals to sue any person or institution for facilitating abortions, which free-speech advocates have said has chilling effects and creates fear of litigation for sharing information about abortion online.

Be smart: These laws could violate both the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which largely shields websites from liability for what their users post online.

The bottom line: In an environment that's increasingly hostile to First Amendment rights, neither governments nor private companies are in a strong position to protect online speech.

  • Some advocates say the Supreme Court's decisions and subsequent action by state legislatures are a wake-up call to maintain strong legal free-speech protections at the national level like Section 230, which has come under fire from critics of Big Tech.
  •  "Rather than spending tens of millions fighting in court, many online platforms will instead 'race to the bottom' and comply with the most restrictive state laws," Evan Greer and Lia Holland of digital rights group Fight for the Future wrote in a Wired op-ed.
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