Tech companies face a legal nightmare if Roe v. Wade is overturned

Tech companies will need to decide how they’ll handle dozens of states looking into their users for seeking abortions.

A photo of the Texas State Capitol building

A six-week Texas abortion ban takes aim at those aiding and abetting the performance or inducement of an abortion, even unknowingly.

Photo: Tamir Kalifa / Stringer via Getty Images

The Supreme Court is poised to end abortion rights as the U.S. has known them for five decades, creating a state-by-state approach to reproductive law that will test tech companies’ commitments to the privacy of user data and their own workers.

Chief Justice John Roberts has confirmed the authenticity of a leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, and while he emphasized it wasn’t final, it’s clear that conservatives have the votes to significantly curtail abortion access. In the process, they’re all but certain to uphold state laws that would bring down lawsuits and investigations on people seeking to terminate pregnancies, and in some cases even on those who might transport them to clinics or advertise to them about health care options.

That could mean tech companies, which generally comply with legal information demands, could suddenly be helping states investigate and punish people who seek or facilitate abortions, and even those who help them unwittingly.

There’s little doubt that consumers will turn to tech they carry in their pockets when they’re seeking abortions. Tech, in other words, will snitch on its users thanks to the data-driven business models it’s spent decades building. After all, once the procedure is outlawed or curtailed in roughly half of U.S. states, law enforcement will take a keen interest in precise data revealing intentions and locations — and not just by those who seek abortions.

Tech companies are in a bind

A six-week Texas abortion ban, for instance, takes aim at those aiding and abetting the performance or inducement of an abortion, even unknowingly, leading to concerns that it will affect ride-hail drivers taking patients to clinics or even potentially people advertising information about abortion.

In fact, as with many types of investigations, digital tools already appear to have played a role in punishments related to abortion drugs, according to Mother Jones. And a Vice report on Tuesday revealed a data broker selling information on people who visited Planned Parenthood after pulling the data from “ordinary apps” — information that can make its way into the hands of the authorities.

These issues would likely give anyone thinking about an abortion in a state where it’s banned ample reason to increase their digital hygiene: to chat only on fully encrypted platforms, avoid saved Google searches, disguise web traffic, block ads, ditch smartphones entirely when traveling for health care and minimize data-collection and sharing by apps. All of this, of course, will make it more difficult for people to access abortion.

But it also puts companies in a bind. Facebook may have to decide how it will respond to a subpoena seeking the IP address of an abortion rights group administrator who fundraises. Google might face demands about the identities of advertisers trying to get out information on how to obtain an abortion in states where it’s illegal. GoFundMe may have to figure out how it’ll treat users raising money for out-of-state abortions. Tech and telecom, which face thousands of so-called geo-fenced warrants each year, could have to deal with demands seeking to find out who was merely near a reproductive health care clinic.

In theory, these issues may not present much conflict, even if company leadership may not like what they have to do: The big platforms say they respond to valid legal demands for information on users and, at least for Meta and Google, the amount of information they’re handing over around the world is going up all the time.

In practice, though, many of these cases involve judgment calls, both about formal law enforcement requests as well as the handling of the content they moderate. In the case of subpoenas and other demands, the companies can choose to push back — often if the requests are incredibly broad, but also potentially to protect free speech — and they seem to cough up information close to 80% of the time.

An uncertain legal landscape

The questions around how to handle these requests were all vexing for companies’ legal departments when it was just Mississippi that was going to the highest court in the land with its ban, which has a limit at 15 weeks and allows for private lawsuits.

With its ultimate decision on Mississippi, which is expected in June, the Supreme Court could bring an explosion of complexity, with states barring abortion overall or at different periods after conception that can be hard for even pregnant people to track.

In addition, all of these companies also have their own workers to worry about. Uber and Lyft have pledged to cover drivers’ legal expenses if they’re caught up in Texas’ provision on abetting abortions, and the two ride-hail companies just extended the program to Oklahoma, which passed a similar law. It’s not clear how they’ll treat requests for riders’ information, though.

Meanwhile, Apple, Yelp, Match Group and Bumble are covering employee expenses when they travel out-of-state to get an abortion. And Amazon announced, just hours before the Supreme Court’s draft opinion leaked, that it would cover up to $4,000 for travel to care for certain non-life-threatening health care expenses, nodding not just to abortion bans but the new limits on care for transgender people. It’s not clear, however, how these companies will handle abortion laws varying across dozens of states instead of just two.

What is clear is that these companies will have to contend with a legal landscape that is poised to shift profoundly. Almost any decision they take could put them in the crosshairs of state governments — some of which are increasingly willing to punish big companies for their social stances — or will end up upsetting and harming their users and workers. And they’ll have to make those decisions soon.


An IPO may soon be in Notion’s future

Notion COO Akshay Kothari says there’s room to grow, aided by a new CFO who knows how to take a company public.

Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar.

Photo: Courtesy of Notion

It’s been a year since Notion’s triumphant $275 million funding round and $10 billion valuation. Since then the landscape for productivity startups trying to make it on their own has completely changed, especially for those pandemic darlings that flourished in the all-remote world.

As recession looms, companies looking to cut costs are less likely to spend money on tools outside of their Microsoft or Google workplace bundles. Enterprise platforms are bulking up and it could spell trouble for the productivity startups trying to unseat them. But Notion COO Akshay Kothari says the company is still aiming to build the next Microsoft, not be the next Microsoft. And in a move signaling a new chapter of maturity, Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar, Instacart’s former VP of finance.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Securing the Enterprise

Securing the enterprise

There’s no let-up in the surge of cyberattacks against businesses. But shutting down the hackers will require many enterprises to evolve their strategy.

In today’s enterprise, “identity and security are very merged.”

Illustration: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Protocol
the Protocol team
Protocol focuses on the people, power and politics of tech, with no agenda and just one goal: to arm decision-makers in tech, business and public policy with the unbiased, fact-based news and analysis they need to navigate a world in rapid change.

How neobanks are helping consumers game credit scoring

The CFPB says it is closely monitoring secured credit cards offered by neobanks.

Regulators are scrutinizing neobanks' card offerings.

Photo: Oscar Wong/Moment/Getty Images

About one in six Americans has a credit score below 619, according to the CFPB. Another 23% have too thin a credit file to score or no file at all. That puts them in a credit trap: To build credit, these consumers need someone to give them a line of credit with which they can demonstrate good financial habits. But with scores that low, few lenders are prepared to offer them anything.

Neobanks say they can solve the problem through a new twist on secured credit cards. But regulators are already scrutinizing their offerings.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.


Steel decided World War II. Chips will decide whatever is next.

“Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” foreshadows the coming battle between nations over semiconductors.

“Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies.

Image: Scribner; Protocol

“World War II was decided by steel and aluminum, and followed shortly thereafter by the Cold War, which was defined by atomic weapons,” Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes in the introduction to his latest book. So what’s next? According to Miller, the next era, including the rivalry between the U.S. and China, is all about computing power.

That tech rivalry and the story of how the chip industry got from four to 11.8 billion transistors are all part of Miller’s book, “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” which comes out Oct. 4. “Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies: three from the U.S., one from Japan, and one from the Netherlands.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Latest Stories