Anti-abortion campaign to block online ads for reproductive services

“I think in the next five years and over the next few years, we will see how this will affect interstate legislation,” said Kevin Grillot, chairman of the March for Life Chicago committee, noting that advertising illegal activities can become territory for litigation. .

Lawyers agree that fights are likely: the Supreme Court case on abortion has already been decided, but other battles over this procedure still looming, including because of advertising.

Under a bill proposed by the National Right to Life Committee, Google’s web hosting service could run into trouble, said Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler. Similarly, Facebook could potentially be held liable for any user-generated content that promotes abortion and is directed to people in states where these services are illegal.

While these platforms continue to run abortion-related ads, abortion rights advocacy group Plan C said it’s difficult and getting harder to get ads promoting abortion services approved on them.

Digital advertising platforms are most concerned in the short term with laws similar to those contained in the National Committee on the Right to Life proposal in Oklahoma and Texas that allow civil lawsuits against anyone who helps someone else get an abortion.

Both states allow residents to sue parties who aid or abet abortion for at least $10,000 in damages. While the laws state that paying for an abortion qualifies as aiding and abetting, lawyers say the laws can cover advertising.

Advertiser Protection

Abortion advocates say that advertising for the procedure is protected by free speech rights.

“Protecting a person’s right to have an abortion, informing a person about how to legally have an abortion, encouraging a person to choose their own reproductive health, all of these are protected by the First Amendment,” said Vera Eidelman, staff lawyer. with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

There is also Supreme Court precedent protecting advertisers. Before Rowe vs. Wade Some states explicitly ban advertising for abortion services. In 1971, Jeffrey Cole Bigelow, editor of the underground Charlottesville-based Virginia Weekly, ran an advertisement for an abortion clinic in New York City, despite a Virginia law that made it an offense to “encourage or induce an abortion.” Bigelow was arrested and convicted, but his case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.

In the majority opinion, then-Judge Harry Blackmun wrote that the advertisement did not promote a simple business deal. “It contained factual material of clear public interest” and was eligible for First Amendment protection, he wrote. However, this decision came at a time when the court was sympathetic to the right to abortion, having granted them constitutional protection two years earlier in Caviar solution. The current court may think otherwise.

Eidelman believes Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that websites cannot be held liable for material posted by users, is also likely to protect Internet companies. But she acknowledges some legal uncertainty.

Implications for technology

For groups like the National Committee on the Right to Life, uncertainty helps.

Ziegler predicts laws penalizing the dissemination of abortion information will have a chilling effect on the digital advertising industry, possibly leading platforms to voluntarily suppress abortion advertising and abortion content in states where it is illegal. Perhaps this is already happening. Last month, Vice reported that Instagram and Facebook removed posts from users suggesting sharing abortion pills. Meta, their parent company, said the posts violated its regulated goods policy.

Facebook and Google allow ads for abortion services on their ad networks, but abortion advocacy groups have said the platforms’ ad approval process is not transparent.

Dimitratou said she had difficulty with ads that used phrases like “termination of pregnancy” or simple words like “pills”.

In order to advertise for abortion search keywords, advertisers must apply for certification with Google and demonstrate that they are not engaging in fraud. To block ads for fraudulent products, Google screens ads before they appear on its site, using software and staff to flag seemingly harmless words.

Plan C, as an advocacy group, does not always qualify for the certifications that abortion providers can obtain and has not applied for them.

Several abortion clinics have said that it is not that difficult for them to get advertising approval from Internet companies. They also do not advertise in states where abortion is illegal.

Dimitrathu said that Facebook frequently rejects Plan C ads for “promoting the sale of unsafe substances,” which is up to Meta’s parent company to define. Like Google, Meta has special approval processes to place advertisements about abortions, as well as about medicines. However, only online pharmacies, telemedicine providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers can apply.

Google acknowledges that its advertising policy may change. It bans abortion advertising in 72 countries where it is banned.

Michael Aciman, a spokesman for Google, said the company is “still evaluating the court ruling and laws across the country and will continue to monitor new developments.”