Abortion Rights Activists Get Creative to Challenge Big Tech at SXSW: ‘No Business as Usual’

In Austin, Texas, where abortion has been banned since 2021, organizers are using disruptive art and moving billboards to challenge big tech’s role in surveilling abortion seekers & censoring online abortion resources.

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Abortion Rights Activists Get Creative to Challenge Big Tech at SXSW: ‘No Business as Usual’

“YOU TRAVELED TO TEXAS FOR SXSW, BUT SOME TEXAS COUNTIES ARE TRYING TO STOP PEOPLE FROM TRAVELING OUT-OF-STATE FOR AN ABORTION,” reads a projection on a building near the Austin Convention Center, where the annual South by Southwest festival kicked off on Friday. Since September, several counties in the state have passed or introduced ordinances that make it illegal to drive someone through that county if the end destination is an abortion clinic. 


Moving billboards and projections like this are visible throughout the city this week thanks to a collaborative effort by Plan C Pills, a nonprofit that helps people obtain medication abortion online no matter where they live. The effort is also spearheaded by Fight for the Future, a digital rights organization that helps abortion seekers and patients protect their online data as well as Project For Empty Space, a multidisciplinary art-activism collective.

Sarah Philips, a Texas-based digital organizer at Fight for the Future, told Jezebel the decision to use SXSW to raise awareness about the threat of abortion-related criminalization through digital surveillance, as well as the online censorship of abortion-related information, felt urgent. “It’s so important in Texas to call attention to it because there should be no business as usual,” Philips said. 

After all, this is a state where abortion has been banned since 2021, a year before Roe v. Wade was overturned. As the EndAbortionSurveillance.com website shows (along with vital resources for abortion seekers to protect their digital privacy), people have faced criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes and abortion for years; oftentimes, their digital footprints are weaponized against them by law enforcement with the help of companies like Meta, Google, unencrypted online messaging platforms, and digital data brokers, who can hand over abortion seekers’ messages, search histories, and location data to prosecutors. Philips told Jezebel the goal this week was to reach (and call out) the politicians and people in tech attending the convention. 


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“The way that governments, cops, and right-wing extremists actually enforce abortion bans is through surveillance technology,” Phillips said. “And here [at SXSW], we have this conference where big tech companies gather with politicians, activists, all that—but they’re not naming the elephant in the room, which is that a lot of them are working together toward criminalizing abortion.”

In 2015, an Indiana woman named Purvi Patel was jailed and charged with feticide for allegedly inducing an abortion. The prosecution used Patel’s private text messages with a friend as evidence and her online search history. In 2018, police in Mississippi charged Latice Fisher with killing her baby after she experienced a stillbirth, similarly using her online searches for abortion as evidence of her “motive.” Charges against Patel and Fisher were ultimately dropped, but their cases show how pregnancy loss and alleged self-managed abortion can be criminalized through the misapplication of charges like “feticide”—and how big tech often aids this. “We’re being strategic about who we’re putting these messages in front of—that is, people who are playing an active role in the reproductive health care space but don’t even know it, maybe through their data collection policies,” Rebecca Jampol, co-director of Project For Empty Space, who helped design some of the SXSW displays, told Jezebel. “We’re working with Fight for the Future and the other groups to talk about how big tech is aiding the criminalization of those that are seeking abortions.”

In July, a Nebraska teen was sentenced to 90 days in jail and two years of probation for having a stillbirth at 29 weeks after taking abortion pills in April 2022 to exit an abusive relationship. (This, of course, was before Roe was overturned; at the time, Nebraska had a 22-week abortion ban.) Meta shared her text communications about her abortion with local law enforcement in the summer of 2022. In December, Meta announced that it would soon roll out end-to-end encryption for its Messenger app. “They got a lot of great PR for that, but there’s been no follow-through,” Philips said. “But we know without pressure, these companies won’t actually act to protect abortion. So we hope that people who work at Meta, who work in big tech and are at SXSW, will come across our displays—that’s exactly why we did it.” (Meta, in particular, has a robust presence at SXSW.)

It’s not just Meta lacking follow-through. In June 2022, Google pledged it would automatically delete user location data collected from “sensitive” locations, such as reproductive health clinics, domestic violence shelters, or rehabilitation centers. However, several investigations from watchdog groups say the company has continued to store this data. Philips also points to the issue of pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS pledging to dispense abortion pills without detailing plans to protect customer privacy: They, too, are “receiving misplaced, good PR” for this, she said, but “if they don’t actually make changes to enhance their digital security, they’re actually putting people at risk.” Fight for the Future is currently working on a campaign to “pressure pharmacies to clearly disclose their privacy practices, including how much consumer info they’re willing to give to the police.”

In addition to the threat of digital surveillance and abortion criminalization, Fight for the Future and Plan C Pills’ SXSW displays also bring attention to the censorship of abortion information on social media platforms, like Meta’s Instagram and Facebook. In particular, Martha Dimitratou, Plan C’s digital strategist, told Jezebel that social posts from Plan C Pills are frequently flagged and removed for sharing information about medication abortion. Their accounts have also been intermittently banned and reinstated. This happens all while anti-abortion groups easily share posts with blatant disinformation about “abortion pill reversal” and other dangerous content without consequence. “Big tech’s monopolies on social media are very problematic, where this can happen to abortion-related information with no recourse,” Dimitratou said.

Additionally, Philips points to a wave of legislative efforts to censor online abortion resources, which Fight for the Future is trying to educate about at SXSW. Last year, Texas and South Carolina introduced bills that would prohibit internet service providers from hosting websites that give information about medication abortion, or from hosting abortion funds; Philips expects that both of these bills will be reintroduced this year. Then, there’s KOSA (the Kids Online Safety Act) in the U.S. Senate, which Philips characterizes as a “seemingly well-meaning” bill to protect children on the internet, which would instead be weaponized by anti-abortion attorneys-general to block abortion information from the internet. “This sort of censorship legislation is very, very hot right now.”

But online innovation can also protect abortion seekers: At a Sunday panel for SXSW, Philips joined Kiana Tipton, executive director of Chat with Charley, to talk about technology as a positive force for abortion access. Chat with Charley is a chatbot that connects people seeking information about abortion to an accurate compilation of their options no matter where they live; it’s a project in collaboration with Plan C Pills and the abortion rights-supportive M+A Hotline, which securely guides people through self-managing their abortions or completing a miscarriage. “We wanted to create a resource particularly for people in abortion-restrictive states like Texas who need this the most, and need their privacy protected the most,” Tipton said. Typically, she explained, when people seek their abortion options on Google, they’ll go through “12 different jumping points until you actually get care,” frequently being exposed to misinformation (including anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, which often collect and store abortion seekers’ data). 

Similarly, Philips sees the moving billboard project at SXSW as a dual effort to not just warn abortion seekers and challenge tech companies but also to empower those abortion seekers. That’s why EndAbortionSurveillance.com connects users with a range of resources, guides, and legal advocacy groups to protect their digital footprints. “There’s a lot of warranted fearmongering of, ‘Your abortion could be criminalized,’ very scary images of living in a state that bans abortion. But we’re also trying to show people their power to fight back,” she said. At the Sunday panel, Philips further elaborated on this: “We want people to see digital security as community care to take care of yourself and others—think about responding to surveillance as taking care of each other by protecting their digital footprint.”

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