Pinsof says companies facing such legal threats would have little incentive to defend the free speech of their users if it helped them avoid litigation. “We’ve seen over and over in different contexts that platforms are vulnerable to censorship pressure because they’re afraid of being sued,” says Pinsof. “So it’s easier to take stuff down than it is to potentially open yourself up to liability.”
Other parts of the law might not be so powerful. One part would require ISPs to “make every reasonable and technologically feasible effort to block internet access to information or material intended to assist or facilitate efforts to obtain an elective abortion or an abortion-inducing drug.” This conflicts with federal laws that protect freedom of speech, including Section 230, Pinsof says, and would likely not be enforceable.
Yet platforms may not be able to rely on Section 230 protecting them forever. A case in the Supreme Court argues that tech companies can in fact be held liable for content promoted on their platforms. Any weakening of that protection could expose companies to additional legal hazards in Texas under the proposed bill if they allowed pro-choice content to be shared on their services. Pinsof says the law can be read as making the provision of information about abortion “illegal both for speakers themselves, and also for platforms.”
WIRED reached out to Twitter, Reddit, Meta, and TikTok to ask whether laws like the Texas bill would induce them to change their moderation policies on abortion-related content. None responded. However, experts say that the platforms might preemptively begin limiting content related to abortion.
Last year, WIRED found that Meta was already restricting some abortion content on its platforms, regularly removing posts that referenced accessing abortion pills under rules barring the sale of “illegal or regulated goods.”
The Texas bill could also have major implications for search engines, making it more difficult for women to find accurate information about abortion services. So-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—operated by anti-choice organizations—often use promoted results to get themselves to the top of searches for abortion providers.
“There’s effectively competition between pro- and anti-choice groups to win those slots at the top of Google search,” says Callum Hood, head of research at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that tracks disinformation. “There will be no alternative in search results other than what anti-choice groups have to say about abortion,” he says.
Neither Google nor Microsoft responded to requests for comment about how or whether search results or ads might be modified or restricted in response to the Texas bill.
Hood says he worries that censorship could lead ISPs to decide that hosting abortion-related websites carries too many risks. ISPs have previously blocked websites for illicit materials like child pornography.
“The easiest thing for them to say is just, ‘We’re not going to host any website that’s to do with abortion. Full stop,’” says Hood. “It is going to create an incentive for them to just take simple steps, which is to avoid any ambiguity over whether or not they are facilitating access to information about abortion-inducing drugs.”
Marty says that, should the bill be enacted, activists will work out ways around it, as they have for previous restrictions. But she acknowledges that these strategies may still leave many women without critical information, because digital information has become so important.
Pro-choice activists and educators sometimes use QR codes, which can easily be printed as stickers or posters and left inconspicuously in public places to point people to abortion information. “Most of the activism has already and will continue to pivot to QR codes and other ways of providing informational links without the actual information being visible in a text form,” she says. “But even a QR code is a whisper network. You have to know that this is a thing to find the information on.”
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