Internet Users’ Safety in a Post-Roe World

UPDATE (1 July 2022): My Thoughts About Google’s New Blog Post Regarding Health-Related Data Privacy

UPDATE (24 June 2022): As expected, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned Roe v. Wade, bringing the issues discussed below into immediate focus.

TL;DR: By no later than early this July, it is highly probable that a nearly half-century nationwide precedent providing women with abortion-related protections will be partly or completely reversed by the current U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). This sea change, especially impacting women’s rights but with even broader implications now and into the future, would immediately and dramatically affect many policy and operational aspects of numerous important Internet firms. Unless effective planning for this situation takes place imminently, the safety of women, the well-being of Internet users more generally, and crucial services of these firms themselves will in all likelihood be at risk in critical respects.

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Since the recent leak of a SCOTUS draft decision that would effectively eliminate the national protections of Roe v. Wade, and subsequent remarks by some of the associated justices, it is now widely assumed that within a matter of days or weeks a partial or total reversal of Roe will revert the vast majority of abortion-related matters back to the individual states. 

Many politicians and states have already indicated their plans to immediately ban most or even all abortions, including in some cases those related to rape and incest, and even those to preserve the health of the woman, with only narrow exceptions even to save mothers’ lives. Some of these laws may effectively criminalize miscarriages. Some may introduce both civil and criminal penalties related to abortion, possibly bringing homicide or murder charges against involved parties, potentially including the pregnant women. 

Various states plan to try extending their bans and civil/criminal penalties to include anyone who “participates” in making abortions possible, even if they are in other states, as when a woman travels to a different state for an abortion (the legality of one state attempting to impact actions in another state in this manner is unclear, but with today’s SCOTUS no possibilities can be safely ignored). Actions by some states to try ban obtaining, ordering, or providing various abortion drugs are also already being enacted. Note that SCOTUS has to date permitted to continue the Texas mechanism for suing abortion providers, which has largely blocked abortions in that state.

“Trigger laws” already in place in some states along with the statements of state legislators indicate that near total or total abortion bans will immediately become law in various states if the anticipated SCOTUS decision is announced. 

Anti-abortion and affiliated factions are already planning — using the reasoning of the expected SCOTUS decision as a foundation — for follow-up actions pushing for national abortion bans, limits on contraception, banning gay marriage, rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, and related activities. U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has recently proclaimed that a nationwide abortion ban is possible if the GOP retakes the House, Senate, and presidency. 

These events are creating what could become an existential threat to many Internet users and to key aspects of many Internet firms’ policy and operational models.

Given the sweeping and unprecedented scope of the oppressive laws that would be unleashed on pregnant women and anyone else who becomes involved with their healthcare, especially given the civil and even criminal penalties being written into these laws, it seems inevitable that demands for access to data in the possession of many Internet and telecommunications firms relating to user activities will drastically increase.

Search histories (both server and browser) and potentially even stored email data could be sought looking for queries about abortion services, abortion drugs, and numerous other related topics. Location data (both targeting specific users, and data from broader geofence warrants associated with, for example, abortion providers) could be demanded. A range of other resulting data demands are also highly probable. It is also expected that there would be even more calls for government-mandated backdoors into end-to-end encrypted messaging systems.

Women may put their health and lives at risk by not seeking necessary health services, for fear of these abortion laws. Women’s partners, other family members, friends, associates, and healthcare providers may reasonably believe that their livelihoods or freedom may compromised if they are found to be providing or aiding in any manner related to abortion services. 

Many users may cease using Internet and various telecommunications services in the manners that they previously would have, out of concerns that their related activities and other data could ultimately fall into the hands of state or other officials, and then be used to track and potentially prosecute them under these abortion-related laws.

This situation is a Trust & Safety emergency of the first order for all of these firms.

While some firms already provide users a range of search/location history control tools, I would assert that most users do not understand them and are frequently unaware of how they are actually configured.

I believe that the best mechanism at this time to help protect women and affiliated others who would be victimized by these state actions is to not save the associated data in the first place, unless a user decides that they desire to have that data saved.

One possibility would be for these firms to proactively offer users the option to not save (or alternatively, very quickly expunge) their search, location, and other user activity data associated with abortion and important related issues — both on company servers, and within browser histories if practicable. Users who wished to have any of these categories of data activity saved as before could choose not to exercise this option.

Unfortunately, a database of users who opt out of having this data saved may itself be an attractive data demand target by parties who may assume that it mainly represents individuals attempting to hide activities related to abortions. This possibility may argue for the preferred default behavior being to not save this data, and offering users the option of saving it if they so choose.

While these changes could be part of a desirable broader effort to give users more control over which specific aspects of their “personally sensitive” activity data are saved, this would of course be a significantly larger project, and time is of the essence given the imminent SCOTUS ruling. 

Obviously I am not here addressing the detailed legal considerations or potential technical implementation challenges of the proposals above, and there may exist other ways to quickly ameliorate the risks that I’ve described, though practical alternatives are not obvious to me at present.

However, I do feel strongly that the status quo regarding user activity data in a post-Roe environment could create a nightmarish situation for many women and other Internet users, and be extraordinarily challenging for firms from Trust & Safety and broader policy and operational aspects. 

I strongly recommend that actions be taken immediately to protect Internet users from the storm that will likely arrive very shortly indeed.


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