How Google found itself under pressure from all sides after Roe’s demise

12th August, 2022.      //   Technology  // 

What's Fundamentally Wrong with Google?

In mid-June, one week before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, more than 20 Congressional Democrats wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. In it, they urged the company to prevent searches for abortion clinics from returning results and ads that direct users to facilities that actually oppose the procedure, noting it could put women’s health at risk.

The next month, 17 Republican attorneys general wrote a letter to Pichai pushing for the opposite. They argued that any move to suppress pro-life search results at the behest of Democratic officials “would violate the most fundamental tenet of the American marketplace of ideas” and also “actively harm women seeking essential assistance.”
The dueling reactions highlighted a new political flashpoint for Google. The tech giant has long faced concerns from lawmakers about its vast reach and trove of data on users. But in the wake of Roe’s demise, Google, perhaps more than any of its tech peers, has come under new scrutiny for how its user data and platforms could impact abortion seekers.
In May, amid reports Roe would be overturned, dozens of Democratic lawmakers wrote to Google saying that the company’s practice of collecting and storing vast troves 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.” And on June 24, the same day the Supreme Court struck down Roe, another group of US lawmakers wrote to the Federal Trade Commission saying it should investigate Google and Apple for ad tracking practices that the officials said could end up harming abortion seekers.
In response to the outcry, Google announced in July that it would start deleting user location history for visits to abortion clinics and fertility clinics, among other destinations. Google also said it would add an option for Fitbit users to bulk delete their menstruation data. (The Google-owned fitness tracker previously gave users the option to delete period-tracking data on a record-by-record basis.)
But even as Google adjusted some of its policies, it continues to face pressure from Democrats, privacy advocates and even some of its employees to do more to protect women seeking abortions — not to mention the prospect of Republicans, who are widely expected to regain control of the House in the midterms this year, pushing back at the steps it does take.
“That seems the bare minimum commitment,” Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book “The Fight for Privacy,” told CNN Business in an email about the location data change. “If Google is serious about protecting intimate information, then it should not collect (and, if it did, immediately delete) information related to pregnancy, abortion, and other reproductive health conditions and treatments from all of its services including search.”
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of the signatories on the letter to the FTC and a June letter to President Joe Biden urging him to pass an executive order defending reproductive rights, praised the step but suggested Google still has more to do. “This is a good first step and companies like Google must continue to evaluate how their data can be used to target people seeking abortions and implement privacy protections against criminalization,” Booker said in a statement provided to CNN Business.
Workers in the Alphabet Workers Union, comprised of hundreds of employees at Google and parent company Alphabet, are also not satisfied.
“The truth is, Google’s assertion that it will begin deleting certain types of location data simply does not go far enough. User data from Google searches, and other data collected and stored on various Alphabet products, poses a significant risk to pregnant people,” Alejandra Beatty, member of the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA and technical program manager at Alphabet-owned Verily, told CNN Business.
In response to requests for comment for this story, Google pointed CNN Business to its blog post last month announcing the location history change. In that post, senior Google executive Jen Fitzpatrick said “protecting our users’ privacy and securing their data is core to Google’s work,” and noted the importance of privacy for health-related data in particular.
Fitzpatrick also addressed concerns over data sharing with law enforcement, saying Google is “committed to protecting our users against improper government demands for data, and we will continue to oppose demands that are overly broad or otherwise legally objectionable.”
Still, some privacy experts have raised concerns about how Google and other companies may comply with law enforcement — an issue that has arguably only gained urgency after news this week that police obtained Facebook messages between a Nebraska mother and her teenage daughter that authorities allege show evidence of an illegal self-managed medication abortion.
In particular, some have pointed to Google’s role in fulfilling law enforcement requests for geofence warrants, which request from internet companies a list of devices within a certain boundary at a certain time. Such warrants are gaining popularity as a law enforcement tool for various alleged crimes — the number of geofence warrants submitted to Google by US police departments rose from 982 in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020, according to the company’s latest transparency report.
For its part, Google says that in some cases, it requests to provide less information or declines to provide such information at all. But the fear hits at the underlying concern privacy advocates have about Google and some of its peers.
As Citron put it, “our phones are goldmines, and with warrants provide a detailed view of one’s reproductive story.”

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