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Tech will have to snitch on users about abortion, or get Disney’d

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy. The earthquake kicked off by the news that the Supreme Court is poised to end federal abortion rights has implications for tech users who turn to their phones when seeking the procedure. I discuss how it’ll mean big fights for the companies too. Plus, Intuit is paying hundreds of millions, the SEC is hiring up to take on crypto, and why social media definitely has a Sec. 230 headache.


Abortion rights are all but certain to revert to states soon. Tech users who google information on medication abortions or seek an Uber ride to the clinic need to know the digital trail they’re leaving for investigators, but the new landscape also kicks off perhaps the most complicated political balancing act the companies have ever faced.

There’s little doubt that tech will, inevitably, snitch on users who (try to) obtain abortions, and even some who may come under suspicion when they lose pregnancies.

  • Law enforcement increasingly relies on apps, platforms, data brokers and even ISPs as sources of intimate, location-based data.
  • That trend is only going to accelerate where abortion is illegal or drastically curtailed, with authorities likely digging into phones or making demands on companies to glean information on website visits, order histories, ride-hail apps and location pings near clinics.
  • “Every digital record — from web searches, to phone records and app data — will be weaponized in Republican states as a way to control women’s bodies,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a critic of law enforcement access to data, told Gizmodo.

But the scrutiny won’t stop at the kinds of valid legal demands that tech companies tend to comply with.

  • While Meta and Google, for instance, do provide some data in response to the overwhelming majority of global demands, they also sometimes push back on requests or slow-walk production, especially on overbroad subpoenas and other legal processes.
  • In addition, companies may have to make their own calls about whether content is illegal in a particular jurisdiction or violates their terms of service.
  • Alternatively, companies may want to let stand posts and ads from those trying to educate people about abortion in the name of free speech.

Meanwhile, companies like Amazon and Yelp are offering to pay for employees who need to travel for abortions, while Uber and Lyft have pledged to fund legal defense for drivers who get caught up in states’ provisions on abetting abortions.

  • If Amazon extends the $4,000 benefit it recently announced nationwide, the money could help boost abortion access for many people who would otherwise struggle.
  • The company employs a million people all over the country — many of them lower-wage workers who might not otherwise be able to travel to get access to abortion.

Put this all together, and you have a landscape where companies want to tell two stories at once. Businesses want to assure Republicans in roughly half of the states that they’re complying with the law, while also telling Democrats (and a whole lot of users and a whole lot of workers) that they’re preserving privacy, free speech and health care rights.

  • I cannot stress enough how much tech companies don’t want to be in this position — especially as states curtailing abortion take a bunch of different approaches to doing so.
  • It’ll make the current political squeeze over content moderation look like a pat on the back.

And the stakes are way higher than simply getting hauled in front of yet another Congressional hearing.

  • As Florida has shown with its (ill-conceived) moves to punish Disney for the company’s opposition to a state’s measure limiting teaching about LGBTQ+ issues, Republican leaders are perfectly happy to launch economic war against companies for their social stances.

Big (and medium) Tech, in other words, needs to brace for all kinds of state assaults on contracts, partnerships, special privileges, licensing and more, with all the weird politics of Democrats suddenly supporting the companies on those things. With a final decision still weeks away, companies may be glad they have a bit of extra time.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

In Washington

Senate Commerce Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell plans to introduce a bill to give the FTC back its power to quickly recover money, especially from scams. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the agency had long overstated its authorities under a provision of the FTC Act, setting off a scramble to replace powers that had become central to the agency’s mission — especially the bipartisan goal of reining in Big Tech.

The American Bar Association’s antitrust arm has concerns about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s measure aimed at tech. The ABA antitrust section complained about ambiguities and departures from the antitrust approach governing non-Big Tech markets.

The Commerce Department should “engage in an applied research project to study and demonstrate the potential benefits of” distributed ledger technology, said two Republican senators: Roger Wicker, who is the top GOP member of the Commerce Committee, and Cynthia Lummis, crypto’s top ally in the Senate.

The SEC is aiming to hire about 20 investigators to focus on crypto fraud.

Lawmakers in the U.S. and EU are reacting to leaked documents that suggest Meta might not be able to comply with data regulations. The internal document, published last week by Motherboard, suggests that the company isn’t able to trace some user data accessible to third parties. In particular, it raises questions about Meta’s ability to comply with GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act. It looks bad for regulators too, raising questions about enforcement efficacy.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated in a Senate hearingon Wednesday that the much-maligned, Orwellian-sounding Disinformation Governance Board was “a working group precisely to ensure that there are guardrails and protections in place to protect” free speech and privacy across the work that the department’s sub-agencies are already doing in combatting disinformation. He also admitted the rollout was lacking.

In the states

New York Attorney General Letitia James said Wednesday Intuit will pay $141 million to consumers nationwide to resolve claims that TurboTax was “deceiving millions of low-income Americans into paying for tax services that should have been free.” The FTC is also suing Intuit.

Amazon warehouse workers won’t form a second union in Staten Island. A group of 1,500 eligible workers voted largely against the unionization effort. Relative to workers in the JFK8 facility — which voted to unionize in April — the LDJ5 facility consists largely of part-time workers.

Georgia is handing Rivian a massive $1.5 billion incentives package to build an EV factory in the I-20 corridor. As part of the subsidy package, Rivian has promised to hire 7,500 workers in the state by 2028, with an average annual salary of $56,000. Georgia is expected to generate $330 million in tax revenue from Rivian, according to Bloomberg.


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On Protocol

The telehealth boom, combined with medication abortions, won’t be “a panacea” to preserve broad access to the procedure if Roe is overturned. In the wake of FDA clearance, services like Choix and Hey Jane can help manage a surge in demand for abortions in states where it’s still legal, but they’ll face limits on their own business models and who can benefit from the pills.

Sell, sell, sell! Protocol’s Benjamin Pimentel has the story of how the crypto sector turned on SEC Chair Gary Gensler. A former blockchain lecturer at MIT, Gensler has become the industry’s favorite scapegoat on Twitter. Critics accuse Gensler of harboring aggressive anti-crypto sentiment; others say he’s taken a more measured approach while attempting to reasonably reign in the booming industry.

Capitalism will solve the climate crisis and mint a trillionaire in the process, according to Tony Fadell, who led the development of the iPhone and iPod. Fadell told Protocol the key will be incentivization: “We need a carbon economy, a methane economy, a plastic economy. They need to be taxed just like they have luxury taxes in Europe.”

A growing roster of communities in sovereign tribal territories have started building their own decentralized broadband networks rather than waiting for federal policymakers.

FCC commissioner Nathan Simington said the agency wouldn’t block Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. Not that anyone ever really expected the FCC to do so, but the press release served as an outlet for Simington, a Republican, to vent about those opposing the deal.

In the media, culture and metaverse

Musk told potential financial backers that he could take Twitter public after a few years of private ownership,the Wall Street Journal reports.

Civil society groups are calling on major brands like Coca-Cola to pressure Musk to keep Twitter’s current moderation practices in place. Musk responded by tweeting a call for investigation into the groups — including Accountable Tech, UltraViolet and the National Hispanic Media Coalition — claiming they somehow “want to control your access to information.”

In data

3%: Musk also tweeted that Apple’s commission on in-app transactions “is like having a 30% tax on the Internet” and is “literally 10 times higher than it should be.” It mostly sounds like typical Musk-mouth, with the billionaire weighing in on random things here and there, but reportedly he is thinking about monetizing tweets on that app he’s expected to buy.


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A win for Thiel (and Trump)

“Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance won a contentious battle to become Ohio’s GOP Senate nominee. Sure, Peter Thiel bet big on Vance, himself a VC, and the candidate once called Trump “cultural heroin,” but by talking in a Trump Mad Libs style, Vance got the former president’s endorsement, the belief that he’s anti-tech and, ultimately, the nod.

Thanks for reading — see you Friday!

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