The end of Roe vs. Wade leaves web platforms struggling to deal with moderation – and data security – issues surrounding newly instituted abortion bans.
For years, web platforms have faced relatively little backlash for pledging to remove posts that violate US law, even though there is debate over whether specific content meets that standard. . Policies that “correspond to the laws of the land” – Elon Musk’s initial description of his plans for Twitter – are generally coded for very permissive moderation in the United States, where the First Amendment has historically protected much content. The 2018 FOSTA-SESTA exclusion, a rare exception, targeted the marginalized sex worker community and used the rationale that they were fighting the legitimately hated cause of coercive sex trafficking.
But current and upcoming state abortion laws could change that. Laws – currently in effect in several states – prohibit a medical procedure that most Americans believe should be legal, and some groups want this ban to even cover procedural information. Large swathes of the web have mobilized in response, offering to set up people seeking abortions and shipping abortion pills, spreading information about self-managed abortion and (in rare cases) calling for resistance violent.
This already raises questions for Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, Meta. Earlier this week, both platforms removed posts offering to send abortion pills in the mail, citing rules prohibiting offering to “buy, sell, trade, give, ask or donate pharmaceuticals. According a report of The interceptionit also banned praising or supporting an abortion-rights protest group called Jane’s Revenge, which claimed responsibility for burning down the office of an anti-abortion group, among other incidents.
These decisions are not particularly surprising. Shipping abortion pills to states like Texas could violate the laws of those states, and Meta also prohibits the sale of drugs like cannabis. Jane’s Revenge supports a cause that many people find likable, and the extent of the group’s size or activity is far from clearbut he takes credit for the crimes and calls for a “night of rage” and “drastic action” against the anti-abortion infrastructure.
That said, critics questioned the level of review of abortion-related content. Instagram briefly deleted the account of an abortion services locator and restricted the hashtag for “mifepristone” on the grounds that it was used in posts that violated the guidelines. Jane’s Revenge would have been designated a “Tier 1” priority group, a higher restriction than the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters insurgent groups.
Those decisions could eventually make their way to the Oversight Board, which theoretically exists to make tough, nuanced moderation calls with some independence from Meta. But with Roe vs. Wade overthrown barely a week ago, the Supervisory Board has not taken up any case related to abortion. (A spokesperson acknowledged receipt of an email from The edge asking if he was looking into the issues, but the organization didn’t respond before press time.) It seems plausible that he will in the future – possibly drawing lines between things like providing medical information and directly facilitate a procedure.
But, while it tackles the problem, it won’t stop states and politicians from going after platforms that host abortion-related content. A model anti-abortion law from the National Anti-Abortion Committee for the Right to Life would ban providing information about illegal abortion, and South Carolina lawmakers have already proposed an apparent version of it in the state legislature. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act helps protect sites of accountability right now, but he faces many challenges in court and in Congress.
Abortion isn’t the only issue where platforms could find themselves facing a patchwork of content removal requests. As Politics Remarks, 34 states have introduced (and two passed) bills governing social media moderation; many require sites to leave specific content at the topbut others require withdrawals things like medical misinformation. Meanwhile, there is a growing political movement to stop the booksellers and libraries to let minors access LGBTQ-related books, and if that continues to escalate, the fight could easily move online.
Web platforms have always had to deal with laws that their founders don’t necessarily agree with, and they’ve often acquiesced. Twitter has restricted hate speech in European countries while aiming to serve as the “free speech wing of the free speech party”, and Amazon recently restricted LGBTQ searches in the United Arab Emirates, among many other examples. But they have also been called upon to draw moral lines that go beyond abiding by the laws of any given country. Apple, for example, has been criticized for following Chinese demands for censorship and access to user data. In the United States, sites that submit to abortion-related police inquiries could suffer the same blame.
Companies like Meta have practical incentives to avoid being seen as partisan in the US, and they’ve gone to the trouble of doing so, even when it comes to deliberately putting the thumbs up on the moderation scale. . While many voiced support for employees’ reproductive choices, they were quieter on any broader stance on ending Roe vs. Wade. But as abortion bans spread, it’s going to get harder and harder — and eventually, they’ll have to make a phone call.