Reports have surfaced of abortion information being removed from social media. Unfortunately, none of this is unprecedented. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have long maintained broad and vague community standards that allow them to remove content with little recourse.
What is happening
As reported by Vice and tracked by Wired, abortion posts are under intense scrutiny online. The difference, one activist told Vice, is simply that more people are having their posts deleted than before.
Vice found that the truthful phrase “abortion pills can be mailed” raised a flag as violating Facebook’s rules about “buying, selling, or trading non-medical drugs.” A moderator running a Facebook group connecting people seeking information about abortions told Wired she always had to carefully monitor posts to prevent the group from being taken down entirely, with clear rules about what may be published – all links are prohibited, eg.
The moderator expressed a frustration that we constantly hear about community guidelines: that they have no idea what the lines really are and find things suddenly change without warning.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media platforms have tightened enforcement around medical information, making their automated systems and human reviewers arbiters of truth. Their rules also prohibit buying, selling, or giving away pharmaceuticals (this is the rule that posts containing the phrase “abortion pills can be mailed” did not follow).
Additionally, during the pandemic, Facebook removed posts at the request of state attorneys general related to the “promotion and sale of regulated goods and services.” In the context of abortion care and information, this precedent becomes particularly dangerous.
Additionally, almost every social media platform has some form of rule prohibiting “illegal” activity or promoting it. What’s unclear is, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe, whether those rules will now apply on a state-by-state basis. We don’t know how the companies will react, if they are even able to block state by state (and if they will, even if they can), if they will abide by a patently unconstitutional or illegal law until it is down, and how these companies will manage the uncertainty of people seeking abortion care in states where it is still illegal from states where it is not. There is so much uncertainty here and companies are not used to providing clear guidance even under the best of circumstances.
These types of policies are also easily weaponized by those seeking to silence those who attempt to share information and provide community support. All it takes is a few people reporting someone or a group in bad faith for posts to be removed and accounts banned. Even if he does eventually recover, the downtime means people seeking help won’t be able to find him.
What should companies do
At the risk of repetition, companies need to make their policies clear and consistent. Vague and broad community standards don’t provide real guidance to users on what they can and can’t say. This becomes especially true when the appeal process is broken.
Vice tested Facebook by posting “abortion pills can be mailed” multiple times, once “disagree” with the flag and once “agree” with it. (Those are the two options available to users.) The posts disappeared and the user’s account was suspended for 24 hours, even though the post where he disagreed with Facebook’s assessment eventually been restored.
That’s a problem – losing access to an account for 24 hours even though it’s been determined that no rules were broken is something easily weaponized. It’s also a problem that in Facebook’s case, calls are limited to clicking yes or no on a box and whether or not a human is reviewing the case is unclear.
Clear and consistent policies with a working appeals process would go a long way for people looking to share information online. As uncomfortable as it is for them, companies need to take a stand on behalf of their users. Inconsistent enforcement based on press attention or political pressure hurts everyone.
Company transparency reports also need to start breaking down not just by country, but by state, where the difference in state laws makes a difference. It’s important to know which state attorneys general and other law enforcement entities make abortion-related demands of businesses. This will help us understand how businesses respond to various state laws. In the Facebook example above, we don’t know which state attorneys general asked Facebook to remove material. This information should be public.
We see transparency reports and policies that restrict access to material based on “local laws,” but nothing more granular than national data is provided.
Think beyond Facebook
Policies like those held by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter exist beyond social media. And when infrastructure is involved, it can be even more dangerous.
Services like Cloudflare could be pressured to disable access to websites containing abortion information. ISPs could be forced to cut internet access to accounts providing information. Payment processors could block people from paying for abortion care. In addition to serious consequences for speech and access to speech, there are additional consequences as you move down the technical stack.
Deleting messages is one thing: an entire account or website only part of which is related to abortion is dangerous. And in the case of internet access, it doesn’t just stop someone from talking about abortion. This prevents them – and anyone in their household – from working from home, taking distance learning courses and connecting with family.
Amazon’s AWS – the cloud service that dominates website hosting – has a policy allowing for the disabling of content that is “unlawful” or “with applicable law or any judicial, regulatory or governmental order or request”, a broad ability for government entities to get websites providing abortion information removed.
Similarly, Google prohibits users of Google Docs from “engaging in any illegal activity or promoting any activity, goods, service, or information that causes serious and immediate harm to people or animals.” Many use Google Docs as a place to collect research and information and distribute the link to these within their communities. Using Google Docs for abortion care then exposes users to the possible loss of a Google Account, i.e. the loss of anything you have entrusted to Google. Your e-mails, photos, personal videos, everything is gone.
And that doesn’t include the possibility of Google reporting you to the authorities.
As users, we find ourselves increasingly dependent on a handful of companies for Internet access, hosting and sharing of resources, and communication. If we are started from one, there are very few alternatives. Most Americans don’t have a choice of their Internet service provider. If they are started, they are offline. Google provides a suite of services to its users which, if lost, would be devastating. AWS could clean the internet of many websites.
Ideally, we would be able to choose. We would be able to choose the social media site, ISP, or host that shared our values and was committed to fighting unfair government demands. Instead, we are forced to try to figure out what is possible under the rules of these companies. So we have to put pressure on them to defend us. To resist government pressure to remove information, users or groups. To clarify rules so we can share and access information. To serve us, who are their customers.