Aug 3, 2022 - Technology

States' fight over abortion information catches tech in crossfire

Illustration of hands with markers crossing out content on a laptop screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With reproductive rights in flux across the U.S., activists on both sides of the issue are using the uncertainty to pressure tech companies to change the way abortion information gets shared and labeled.

The big picture: The absence of a nationwide law means that companies will likely have to interpret a patchwork of competing state rules — as they already do with privacy and other tech issues.

  • Platforms now face the likelihood of being told by one state to prohibit information that another state requires them to distribute.

What they're saying: "We may be on the verge of a digital civil war, where one group of states has rules on online speech that conflict with rules in another group of states," says Matt Perault, director of the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina, who is also a consultant on tech policy issues and a former Meta employee.

Driving the news: Pressure on tech platforms to tighten controls on abortion information comes from both sides of the issue.

  • Pro-abortion activists and politicians want platforms to more clearly label crisis pregnancy centers — which typically tell abortion-seeking patients to seek alternatives — to differentiate then from actual abortion clinics.
  • A group of Democratic lawmakers has proposed legislation to crack down on what they say is medical disinformation used by crisis pregnancy centers to show up when people search for abortion information. Meanwhile, a group of conservative attorneys general have sent a letter to Google demanding that crisis pregnancy center information not be limited.

Abortion opponents are pushing for state laws that would criminalize not just helping facilitate an abortion but also providing information on how to perform an abortion or where to get one.

  • A draft bill in South Carolina, based on model legislation from the National Right To Life Committee, would criminalize providing abortion information if the entity doing so knows the information "will be used, or is reasonably likely to be used for an abortion."
  • Tech platforms are already coming under fire for the ways in which they are restricting abortion information, especially discussions of abortion medication.

The big picture: With the country increasingly fractured and polarized over abortion, tech platforms have emerged as a key battleground, in some cases as pivotal as courts and legislatures.

  • "We should be as concerned about what’s happening with tech and abortion information as with what is happening with the laws," Erin Matson, co-founder and executive director for abortion rights group Reproaction, told Axios.
  • Abortion opponents have been similarly focused on the issue, pushing for states that outlaw abortion to adopt language similar to that proposed in South Carolina.

The First Amendment narrows the degree to which the government can regulate speech. Tech platforms, by contrast, have wide latitude to highlight or remove content, and advocates from all sides are pushing them to use that discretion.

  • "We’re doing a lot of information-based things because it's the most valuable thing we can be doing at the moment," says Kat Green, managing director of Abortion Access Front.

Here's the state of play on key platforms:

Google: Google-owned YouTube announced tighter rules on abortion-related content last month.

  • The new rules target information coming from both sides. They prohibit videos that "promote or provide instructions" for unsafe or alternative abortion methods not supported by science or approved by medical professionals.
  • They also prohibit false claims about abortion, such as that it commonly causes infertility or cancer.

Meta: Critics say Facebook has at times gone overboard in limiting posts on abortion medication, in some cases temporarily banning hashtags that use the name of a medication that can cause abortion.

  • Facebook says it is using its standard policy with regard to medication, in which discussion of a medication and its affordability or availability are allowed, but not the sale, gifting or transfer of medication.
  • The company sometimes blocks hashtags associated with a high level of rule-breaking content, but Meta has acknowledged "instances of incorrect enforcement" of its policies.
  • Even before the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe, abortion rights advocates said Facebook was allowing medical misinformation to flourish while censoring accurate information, as Rep. Jerry Nadler outlined in a February letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Yelp: Although Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has been a vocal supporter of abortion rights, the site has also taken action against "review bombing" of crisis pregnancy centers by abortion rights advocates.

  • The company says it will continue to enforce one of its core policies: that people can only review entities they have personally received services from.
  • At the same time, the company tells Axios it is continuing to work on ways to provide consumers with reliable information about reproductive healthcare providers that offer abortion services as well as crisis pregnancy centers that steer people to other options.

Of note: Perault largely predicted the platforms' quandary in a piece he co-authored for Slate in May, after the draft decision was leaked.

  • "Platforms will be caught in the middle, trying to mediate a culture war with immense consequences for human welfare, while making decisions that please almost no one and anger both Democrats and Republicans," he wrote.

Go deeper: Today's abortion fights are also opening up new fronts in online .struggles over personal information and privacy.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to fix an organization's name to Abortion Access Front (from Action Front).

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