Image Source: HRD America
More than 20 Congressional Democrats sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai in June, one week before the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. They said that doing so could endanger women’s health. They requested the business to stop searches for abortion clinics from producing results and advertising that sent consumers to places that opposed the procedure.
The following month, 17 Republican attorneys general urged Pichai to do the opposite in a letter. They claimed that any action taken at the behest of Democratic authorities to censor pro-life search results “would violate the most fundamental precept of the American marketplace of ideas” and “actively injure women seeking critical assistance.”
The conflicting responses revealed a fresh political hotspot for Google. Legislators have long expressed alarm about the tech giant’s extensive reach and wealth of customer data. However, since Roe v. Wade, Google has likely received more attention than any of its digital competitors due to concerns about how its user data and platforms might affect those seeking abortions.
Numerous Democratic lawmakers wrote to Google in May, amid rumors that Roe would be overturned, warning that the company’s practice of gathering and storing enormous quantities of geolocation data from cellphones “will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.” Another group of US politicians also wrote to the Federal Trade Commission on June 24, the same day the Supreme Court overturned Roe, urging it to look into Google and Apple’s ad tracking policies because they may hurt people seeking abortions.
Google stated in July that it would begin removing user location records for trips to places like fertility clinics and abortion clinics in response to the uproar. In addition, Google added that Fitbit users would have the option to bulk remove their menstrual data. Users had the ability to erase period-tracking data from the Google-owned fitness tracker on a record-by-record basis in the past.
However, despite making some policy changes, Google still faces pressure from Democrats, privacy advocates, and even some of its employees to take additional steps to protect women seeking abortions. Additionally, Republicans, who are anticipated to take back control of the House in this year’s midterm elections, may also criticize the measures Google does take.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey and one of the signatories to the FTC letter and a letter to President Joe Biden from June encouraging him to sign an executive order protecting reproductive rights, applauded the move but said Google still has more to do. In a statement given to CNN Business, Booker said, “This is a positive starting step and firms like Google must continue to review how their data might be used to target people seeking abortions and provide privacy protections against prosecution.”
Numerous employees of Google and parent firm Alphabet, who make up the Alphabet Workers Union, are not happy either.
Google linked CNN business to a blog post it published last month revealing the change to location history in response to requests for comment on this story. In that piece, top Google executive Jen Fitzpatrick underlined the significance of privacy for health-related data in particular and stated that “respecting our users’ privacy and securing their data is key to Google’s work.”
Is Google in breach of privacy laws?
Some privacy experts have expressed concerns about how Google and other businesses may cooperate with law enforcement. This concern has arguably only grown more pressing in light of this week’s report that police obtained Facebook messages between a Nebraska mother and her teenage daughter that they claim to provide proof of illegal self-managed medication abortion.
Some people have specifically mentioned Google’s contribution in assisting law police through geofence warrant requests, which ask internet service providers to provide a list of devices inside a specific area at a specific time. According to Google’s most recent transparency report, the number of geofence warrants issued by US police departments increased from 982 in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020, showing the growing popularity of such warrants as a tool for law enforcement to investigate a variety of alleged offenses.
Google claims that, on occasion, it either asks for less information or declines to offer it. But the anxiety strikes the core issue that privacy activists have with Google and some of its competitors.