Pro-choice demonstrators during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Abortion rights suddenly emerged as an issue that could reshape the battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress, following a report that conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court were poised to strike down the half-century-old Roe v. Wade precedent. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tech will make some concessions on abortion. Here’s what they should be.

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, I’m looking at what it means for abortion data that sometimes it’s the lawmakers who lobby the tech companies instead of the other way around. Plus, an Apple antitrust suit could be in the works, and the data broker industry is going all in on K Street amid the federal privacy push.

Since you asked …

Despite its relative silence on the most contentious issue in American politics, the social media industry has finally revealed it can be pushed by Democrats in power to do more to protect people seeking abortions. Now the question is what else lawmakers, state attorneys general and others should ask for.

After the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to criminalize abortion, much of the popular conversation revolved around what users could do to protect their data, and whether tech companies could suddenly start ignoring valid legal demands.

  • Honestly, neither seems like a great way to reach the majority of the population, and the latter is no way to do long-term business in society based on the rule of law.
  • Companies did say they’d pay for employees’ health care travel, and Google said it would start automatically deleting location history related to sensitive places like abortion clinics.
  • But mostly, in part because they will face massive political pressure over any decisions, social media companies seemed to be dragging their feet and keeping mum about addressing how their business models create risks for people seeking abortion care.

Quietly, though, in recent weeks, the companies have allowed themselves to be lobbied, a little, by Democrats — and they’ve ignored some threats from Republicans.

  • Google, for instance, recently told Democratic lawmakers, who’d cajoled the company, that it will only present accurate information about whether health care providers perform abortions when users search for such services, following a similar move by rival Yelp.
  • Presenting accurate information would come at the expense of results listing “crisis” centers, which delay and divert people away from terminating their pregnancies — even though a group of Republican attorneys general recently threatened Sundar Pichai to come down on his company if it downplayed the facilities by pointing out what they actually do and don’t do.
  • And Meta has broadened testing of encrypted chats on Messenger (but totally not in response to that Nebraska teen whose messages were accessed by law enforcement before she faced abortion charges).
  • Oracle and other data brokers also at least felt compelled to answer Democratic House lawmakers, and Rep. Lori Trahan, who led the letter, is now demanding answers on metadata from tech platforms, telecoms and Apple.

What social media and communications tech companies need to do is not new, as Corynne McSherry, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal director, told me.

  • First of all, companies shouldn’t collect or keep data about abortion, McSherry wrote in a recent blog post. Seriously. Yes, Google says it’ll auto-delete such information, but it’s still picking up the info, and Meta and others haven’t followed the example.
  • McSherry also wrote about the importance of encryption and opt-in consent for tracking.

And yes, even if they have to comply with valid warrants, companies should also start making reforms around how they handle law enforcement demands for information related to abortion information, McSherry and others have said.

  • “Scrutinizing the legal process they’ve received to make sure it meets all legal requirements,” including that it’s not overbroad, is key, said Samir Jain, director of policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology.
  • Companies should also alert users about the demands when they can so that the latter have the option of stepping in.
  • Though focused on content, not data, Google again took the first steps when it said it would limit falsehoods about the safety of abortion and the promotion of unproven or unsafe methods of terminating pregnancies.
  • Jain suggested platforms need to do more here, and that they already learned a lot of lessons from policing COVID-19 misinformation that would be useful.

Tech companies aren’t going to do everything Democratic lawmakers ask, and the business models of Google and Meta mean that even if there’s someday a comprehensive privacy law, they will never stop being hungry for our data. They’re going to face swift pushback from the GOP too. But if Democrats want to take advantage of the realization they may actually hold on to some power next year, there’s a lot they may want to remind Big Tech that they still care about.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

In Washington

The Department of Justice is preparing to sue Apple, POLITICO reports. The potential lawsuit, which is still being deliberated and could remain under wraps for months, would likely focus on the App Store and Apple payments system. If the DOJ does eventually file, the lawsuit would represent the first Big Tech antitrust case initiated under the Biden administration.

Data brokers are upping their lobbying spend to push for a more palatable federal privacy bill. The five most prominent brokers increased their collective lobbying spend by 11% — representing a $180,000 increase — in the second quarter of 2022 compared to a year prior, per POLITICO. The House version of the American Data Privacy and Protection Act would preempt California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which has become a key source of contention among lawmakers.

In the states

More EV battery production is shifting stateside. Honda and LG Energy announced plans to build a $4.4 billion factory for the production of EV batteries. The factory will be built in Ohio, where Honda has long operated an automotive plant. LG Energy also has an existing U.S. facility operating with GM.

California’s state legislature is set to pass children’s online safety regulations this week. The California Age Appropriate Design Code, which would go into effect in 2024, places limits on features such as video autoplay for children online. Tech companies have complained the regulation is vague enough to threaten their algorithms and free speech, but, Axios reports, behind the scenes, recent changes made the proposal at least somewhat more workable for the firms.

Sponsored content from Cisco

How cybercrime is going small time: Cybercrime is often thought of on a relatively large scale. Massive breaches lead to painful financial losses, bankrupting companies and causing untold embarrassment, splashed across the front pages of news websites worldwide.

Read more from Cisco

In the courts

The FTC is suing data broker Kochava over its collection of location-based data from mobile phones, alleging the practice enables “others to identify individuals” and risks “exposing them to threats of stigma, stalking, discrimination, job loss, and even physical violence.” The agency contends the harm — including the exposure of those who have visited abortion facilities — is both likely and difficult for consumers to avoid. Kochava, citing the impending lawsuit, had previously sued the FTC.

Meta agreed to settle a lawsuit seeking damages for the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The in-principle agreement, reached on Friday, might allow former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg to avoid being deposed.

Coming soon

Protocol’s Tomio Geron is moderating a panel on modernizing payments. Tune in Sept. 8 at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET to hear from Tomio and industry experts about the big changes in America’s payments infrastructure and the challenge of catching up with innovation overseas. Save your spot now.

On Protocol

Move over PayPal Mafia, the Palantir Pack has arrived. Well, I guess Peter Thiel can stay in either case. Anyhow, Protocol’s Biz Carson wrote about how Palantir has produced a disproportionately successful alumni base, including key employees or founders at Affirm, Blend, Handshake, OpenSea and Addepar.

Regulators can close the books on Meta’s crypto wallet as of Thursday. The sunsetting of Novi (previously Libra) represents a significant win for regulators as they actually managed to thwart Meta’s plans to create a global financial network.

In data

15%: That’s how much the time spent gaming on PlayStation decreased in Q1 of this year compared to 2021. Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki attributed gaming time declines to increased opportunities “for users to get out of home as COVID-19 infections have subsided in key markets.”

Sponsored content from Cisco

How cybercrime is going small time: People have been swindled since before man created monetary systems. These aren’t new crimes; just new ways to commit them. But as cybercrime increasingly goes small-time, those on the front lines will need new and more effective ways to fight it.

Read more from Cisco

Don’t call it a comeback

Suburban office parks are probably among the most reviled spaces in America: People tend to associate them with massive empty parking lots, highway views and paper-pushing companies. But Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund invested $1.1 billion on the purchase of 53 suburban offices, betting that remote work will steer companies to move offices closer to suburban employee enclaves.

Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday!

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