💣 Will Roe reversal change tech forever?
Well, here we are – or more precisely, here they are.
Be assured that I'm not going to add comments to the flood of discussions and analysis. Not to mention that although my personal feelings about how the U.S. is dangerously becoming a sh*thole country (to quote one of their recent presidents), I'm not a law expert.
That being said, with the removal of the federal law protecting abortion rights, the pressure against American abortion clinics and women is now a public pit fight. And tech as a global ecosytem is center-stage in this fight.
The first front is plain and simple cyberattacks from "pro-life" groups and activists on clinics or Planned Parenthood. Nothing new, but even more pressing as blanket regulations disappeared overnight.
These attacks are now also directly aimed at young women. Anti-abortion centers in the U.S. routinely pay Google to top the search for pregnancy information with fake social groups. An easy and efficient way to trick young women into volunteering personal information and pressure them away from healthcare support.
The second front is even broader.
It's Youtube, Amazon, Facebook, and the vast majority of other U.S. e-commerce and social media platforms. Because they have done their business of monetizing our daily life information, willingly or not, the GAFAM will be weaponized in this fight.
The problem is that, if you build it, they will come. If you create huge databases of information, what you’re also creating is sort of a honeypot for law enforcement to come to you, you being a third party, and try to get that information if they think it’s useful for prosecutions. - Corynne McSherry, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
In a society where suing into submission anyone that doesn't share your beliefs is the norm, a flood of subpoenas for people's search histories and social graph is to be expected.
The reality is, prosecutors' offices have a certain amount of resources. And if they think that the best way to use their resources to improve the quality of life in their community is to fight to get the digital footprint of people who are pregnant, then they're going to have to expend those resources, and they don't have limitless resources. So if tech companies can make it much, much, much more difficult for them to access this information, that will play a huge role in stymieing their ability to bring these prosecutions. - Dana Sussman, National Advocates for Pregnant Women
And while many U.S. corporations have been prone to explain how they will extend financial protection to their employees in case they had to find a clinic in another state, the way they manage everyone's else data is not going to change.
Do not expect Facebook to stop tracking specific keywords such as abortion pills associated with your geotagged cellphone identification anytime soon. And here's the reason why:
In this context, U.S. tech companies will not grow a conscience and develop strategies that would shed the slightest shred of potential value. Ironically enough, many of them chose to relocate to Texas or Florida a few years ago for the sole reason of decreasing further their already light tax pressure.
Weaponizing data in the U.S. against a private citizen is not science-fiction. In 2015, a woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being accused of feticide after a miscarriage. And to get there, the prosecutor used subpoenaed texts she sent to a friend discussing means to induce an abortion.
As for now, Meta's (Facebook parent company) stance is pretty straightforward. Their Government Requests for User Data policy states that "Meta responds to government requests for data in accordance with applicable law and our terms of service. Each and every request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency, and we may reject or require greater specificity on requests that appear overly broad or vague." Which you can translate into only two words: "We comply."
And their stats are pretty clear:
To quote The Verge on this:
Google does provide data in response to valid court orders, so once an investigation has been launched, a valid court order is enough to get a person’s entire search history. None of that is enough to prove guilt, but it’s a liability for anyone researching abortion services in places where abortion is now illegal. It’s also easy enough to avoid. Signing out of Google or using a privacy-minded search engine like DuckDuckGo will prevent searches from showing up in a search history.
At this point in our history of how we use digital technology, most privacy activist groups can only recommend you become a David Snowden of sorts. Using different email addresses and web browsers, creating alternate social profiles, setting up a VPN, and diving into various esoteric settings to try and disable the most intrusive ad trackers should be our norm?
But hey, after all, why worry? We're not U.S. citizens, right? We're in Europe.
Well, yes and no.
We see how far-right views are also mounting in Europe, but also how the pandemic strained our institutions. And if we might have GDPR and stronger laws protecting women, LGBTs, and minorities, nothing is ever set in stone. We can hope not to become the 2022 U.S. anytime soon, but we shouldn't kid ourselves on how fragile things are.
And it's not like we're blameless, we have our own Texas and Missouri. Andorra and Malta do not allow abortion at all. Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Poland only allow abortion only in extreme cases...
And the tech platforms we rely upon many hours a day will comply with the state of the law of every country they are active in, from Norway to Turkey.
Even Apple, which genuinely makes a tremendous behind-the-scene (and not-so-behind-the-scene) work on privacy is going the extra mile to please the governments their business depends on. Subtle things like removing flag icons from their mobile phone virtual keyboard don't seem much, but shying away from the Taiwan flag as a national icon is a thing.
What's next is anyone's guess.
No matter what, "tech" is now on the hot seat. While we half-ignored the 2010s Cambridge Analytica overt attack on democracy, the prominent role of tech in our citizen's rights is now in plain sight. This will change tech, with incumbent companies born out of the dot-com crash becoming more and more entrenched in their old ways and maybe newly-fangled ones emerging with different paradigms. And no, I don't really believe the latter. But... I do trust Europe to create extra pressure and reinforce GDPR further. Way further.
Getting disconnected from the U.S. societal view on tech is urgent.