Big Tech remains silent on questions about data privacy in a post-Roe world
In the hours and days after the US Supreme Court announced its ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion, tech companies rushed to show their support for employees living in states where the procedure is now outlawed. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, promised to pay expenses for staffers who need to travel out of their home state for an abortion. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, told employees they could apply to relocate from states banning abortion.
These companies have not given that same kind of support to their users, amid growing concerns that a digital footprint—including websites visited, location data from a phone, or private messages on a social platform—could be used to build a criminal case against someone seeking an abortion.
On Friday, MIT Technology Review asked five major tech companies—Alphabet, Meta, Reddit, TikTok, and Twitter—how their policies banning content promoting illegal activity will apply to posts advocating for abortion access or aiding those who now need to travel out of state for the procedure. We also asked how they plan to respond to requests, subpoenas, or warrants for data that could be used to prosecute cases related to abortions in those states.
Alphabet and Reddit did not respond at all to multiple emails requesting comment as of Monday evening. Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, referred MIT Technology Review to its existing policies on government requests, and declined to answer questions on how those policies would apply to abortion. Meta also declined to say how the company plans to moderate content offering information about abortion or advocating for abortion access.
TikTok said it will not restrict content about abortion but declined to say how it will respond to requests for data by law enforcement. Twitter referred to its terms of service and said that its rules generally allow for discussion of abortion, but it declined to say how its policies on illegal content and data requests will apply to abortion specifically.
The Supreme Court’s ruling instantly criminalized terminating a pregnancy in Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Dakota, causing clinics to turn patients away midday. More than half the states are likely to ban abortion either outright or by passing extreme limitations.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, what exactly constitutes a criminal offense is legally murky. Lawmakers in Missouri and South Dakota have already floated legislation to prosecute residents who cross state lines to terminate a pregnancy.
Companies committed to supporting people seeking abortions can “continue to rely on the protections of Section 230,” said Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech-focused civil liberties organization, referring to the law that shields companies from being held liable for content posted to their platform. But, Barnett noted, some companies may err on the side of restrictiveness when it comes to abortion content, fearing laws criminalizing facilitating an abortion. And there’s a precedent for that: the SESTA/FOSTA laws signed in 2018 tweaked Section 230 to remove protections for content involved in the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution.”
Most major tech companies have policies outlining how they will respond to requests from law enforcement and moderate illegal content. MIT Technology Review asked Google, Meta, Reddit, TikTok, and Twitter specific questions about how these policies will apply to situations related to abortion in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Here’s what we know and what we found out:
Google says in its terms of service that the company reserves the right to remove any content that violates the law or could harm other users, third parties, or Google itself. Those terms of service cover a wide range of products, including email, stored media, travel itineraries on Google Maps, and Google documents.
This policy has major privacy and safety implications for those educating others online about abortion, advocating for abortion access, or seeking an abortion in states that have made the procedure illegal. It also has consequences for activists and organizers working on reproductive rights: Google Docs is a popular tool for quick, collaborative organizing around major social issues.
Google-owned YouTube could also limit content about abortion. While YouTube’s rules on violent content do have an exception for educational videos, it’s not clear whether the platform’s policy against promoting “violent acts” could become a tool for anti-abortion activists under state laws that now criminalize the procedure. For instance, they could simply identify content across Google’s platforms that advocates for abortion access or provides resources for those seeking an abortion, and start reporting it to Google’s moderators.
Recently, Google was urged by multiple members of Congress to stop collecting user location data, including data on Android phones, that could identify people who visited abortion clinics. The legislators also asked the company to clarify how it would respond to geofence warrants—requests from law enforcement for data on everyone who visits a certain location.
The company has yet to respond to the lawmakers’ letter and did not respond to any of MIT Technology Review’s requests for comment on how it will handle government requests for such data and user reports of content about abortion.
Meta, which has policies banning some forms of violent or illegal content, would not describe how it plans to moderate content on abortion access after the Dobbs ruling. But Motherboard reported that Facebook has removed posts by individuals offering to mail abortion pills to others. The US Food and Drug Administration permits these medications, which are currently the most common method of abortion, to be prescribed via telemedicine and taken at home in early pregnancy. Nevertheless, 19 states have already banned using telemedicine for abortion. Posts merely noting that abortion pills can be mailed have also been removed from Facebook, according to Motherboard.
NBC has reported that Instagram, also owned by Meta, is withholding search results for “abortion pills” and “mifepristone,” the name of a drug often used in medication abortions. A message explains that recent posts under both hashtags are hidden because some may violate the app’s community guidelines. Abortion pills prescribed by overseas providers not bound by US laws remain available for mail order in every state.
In a tweet, Andy Stone, Meta’s communications director, pointed to the parent company’s ban on content facilitating pharmaceutical transactions.
When asked whether the company would commit to stop collecting and retaining data that could be used to identify or prosecute people seeking or providing abortions, and how it would handle government subpoenas or warrants from states that have outlawed the procedures, Meta directed us to a transparency report released in May 2022, in which Chris Sonderby, Meta’s VP and deputy general counsel, writes that the company assesses “whether a request is consistent with internationally recognized standards on human rights, including due process, privacy, free expression and the rule of law.”
Meta declined to provide any specifics on how these considerations, and the company’s content moderation policies, might apply in the United States’ rapidly changing patchwork of abortion laws.
TikTok’s community guidelines state that the app prohibits users from promoting or facilitating illegal activities. The app removes content related to illegal acts to prevent them from being “normalized, imitated, or facilitated.” Content may be eligible for removal if it relates to activities “regulated or illegal in the majority of the region or world,” even if the activity is legal where a user lives.
After Friday’s ruling, TikTok creators in states where abortion remains legal began to offer their homes as free lodging for those who must now cross state lines to obtain an abortion. The message often came in coded language: one offers a place to “camp” in North Carolina for people living anywhere that “doesn’t allow camping.” Experienced advocates for abortion access have encouraged people looking to help to instead support established networks of activists providing funding and housing for those traveling out of state.
In response to a request for comment on how TikTok will moderate abortion content, spokesperson Jamie Favazza wrote: “Our policies do not prohibit the topic of abortion, including content containing information or someone’s personal experience.”
Favazza declined to comment when asked how the app would respond to warrants and subpoenas asking for data such as watch and search history, private messages, comments, and IP addresses pinpointing where a user logs in, logs out, and posts content, any of which might be requested in the interest of prosecuting someone who had an abortion.
On Reddit, the community r/abortion serves as a support group for those seeking to terminate a pregnancy. The subreddit helps users navigate abortion access and provides broad support to abortion seekers. Since federal abortion protections were overturned, posts have appeared from people weighing their options in states where the procedure is illegal.
Reddit’s user agreement states that people may not use its services to violate “applicable” law. Reddit did not respond to a request for comment on how the site will moderate abortion content or handle user data that could be used to prosecute someone seeking or assisting with an abortion.
In 2021, Reddit received 1,100 requests for user information from law enforcement or government entities globally and complied with 60% of those requests. The company says in its transparency report that it discloses specific user information where required by law and in certain emergencies. For people who complete a financial transaction on the site, this can include information such as full name and home address. The site collects all users’ posts, comments, and private messages and retains, for 100 days, every IP address used to access the service.
Reddit’s transparency report says that when the site receives a removal request for content that violates local law but does not violate its own content policy, it may restrict the availability of that content or “object when appropriate.”
Since Reddit didn’t respond to a request for comment, it’s unclear how this policy may impact the sharing of resources on how to access abortion in states with bans.
Twitter similarly bans the use of its services in furtherance of illegal activities. It allows “public-interest exceptions” to this rule, but so far, the only exceptions it has made have been for tweets from government officials (most famously Donald Trump), which Twitter flagged but did not remove.
According to Twitter spokesperson Elizabeth Busby, Twitter’s rules “generally do not prohibit discussion about abortion, contraceptives, and related topics.”
How to protect users
Until tech companies specify how they will cooperate with data requests for abortion prosecutions, it’s not clear what user data they might offer up. Still, the responsibility for keeping their data private doesn’t necessarily have to fall to users alone.
According to the EFF, tech companies can dump out data logs they aren’t using, protect user location data, and push back against improper and unnecessary requests from government and law enforcement agencies.
The EFF particularly urges tech companies not to comply with warrants targeting everyone at a certain location. In 2020, Google received 11,554 geofence warrants from law enforcement and government agencies, including police in all 50 states. Google has repeatedly complied with geofence warrants, some of which have been used to identify Black Lives Matter protesters, but does not release data on its compliance rate. (In March a federal judge ruled that a geofence warrant was unconstitutional and lacked “particularized probable cause,” but it’s unclear how this will affect tech companies’ compliance.)
Barnett, the EFF staff technologist, says those seeking information on abortions should move away from services offered by large tech companies that don’t prioritize transparency and privacy. For people in states where abortion is newly criminalized, she says, it’s best to “move to services that were built with the privacy of users in mind.”
For those concerned, the Washington Post and Wired have created guides on how to protect your digital privacy in a post-Roe world.