The Texas Heartbeat Act, which has outlawed abortions after six weeks in the state of Texas, has many alarming angles to it, but one of the less obvious ones is the potential role large tech companies may play in facilitating upcoming legal cases against healthcare providers.
The law, which critics say doesn’t give women the opportunity to realize that they’re pregnant, has shifted regulations in the state to allow for civil lawsuits against any doctor or organization who performs an abortion after the authorized period. Such suits can also be filed against any individual who even “aids and abets” in the process—potentially opening up the doors to a flood of arbitrary cases.
An attempt to appeal the decision with the Supreme Court floundered earlier this week. Now, any private individual or group in Texas can “bring a civil action against any person” who “performs or induces an abortion in violation” of the law. The vagueness of the new regulation is such that many people fear it could cast a wide net—even potentially applying to the Uber driver who transports a person to a clinic to get an abortion.
Within this situation, critics have noted the potential for a swell in data requests related to such legal cases. As Protocol recently pointed out, the legal process of discovery—wherein one party asks the other to provide information that may prove relevant to the case—could allow for large amounts of data to be shared with the courts. The outlet puts it like so:
How will Facebook respond to a subpoena requesting the IP address of an abortion rights group administrator who’s been fundraising on the platform? What will Google do if they receive a demand for information on the name and email address of an advertiser targeting Texas women with information on how to obtain an abortion?
We reached out to Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter to ask them about their position on data requests related to lawsuits involving the new law. None of them got back to us, but we will update this story if they do.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which frequently speaks out on behalf of data privacy rights, has said the new law opens the floodgates for flimsy lawsuits against vulnerable targets—the likes of which could embolden vigilantes and threaten freedom of speech.
“The law creates a cadre of bounty hunters who can use the courts to punish and silence anyone whose online advocacy, education, and other speech about abortion draws their ire,” the EFF stated in a recent op-ed. “It will undoubtedly lead to a torrent of private lawsuits against online speakers who publish information about abortion rights and access in Texas, with little regard for the merits of those lawsuits or the First Amendment protections accorded to the speech.”
Speaking with Protocol, Evan Greer of nonprofit internet advocacy group Fight for the Future said the legislation could potentially “lead to an explosion of court requests for user data from tech companies that hold troves of it.” Greer added that she felt the law could be “abused by anti-abortion groups who could potentially use the discovery process in a civil lawsuit to demand sensitive information.”
Gizmodo reached out to Whole Woman’s Health, the abortion care provider that filed the recent, ill-fated legal challenge against the law. In a phone interview, WWH Corporate Vice President Andrea Ferrigno said that the Heartbeat Act was “unprecedented” and would have unfortunate ramifications for women across the state.
“It’s difficult to tell what direction this will all go,” said Ferrigno, describing the law as a “broad” attack on abortion rights that could ensnare people as diverse as the family members of women who receive illegal abortions. “We will continue to fight it, but we will also comply with it,” she added, of the new law. “It’s the only choice we have.”
As previously stated, no tech companies responded to a request for comment on this story. Such silence has so far typified the tech industry’s response to the new Texas law—perhaps best encapsulated by Elon Musk’s recent hand-washing remark on the issue: “I would prefer to stay out of politics.” This is odd for the tech industry which, at the very least, is quite practiced at giving lip service to progressive ideals.