Online Speech in Crosshairs of Texas Anti Abortion Law, Uber, Lyft Vows to Fight

The US Supreme Court has given the green light to Texas’ anti-abortion law. The fallout is now rolling across the Internet.

It was a debate that was settled long ago. Whether or not women should be permitted to get an abortion. The debate was settled in the famous Roe v Wade case clear back in the 70s. Women’s rights advocates have long hailed the Supreme Court decision as confirmation that women have rights over their own bodies.

While it would have been logical to move on from this debate, hardcore conservative’s in the US have been trying to turn back the hands of time. This being one topic they are trying to move America backwards. A key moment was in the early years of the Trump administration when Republican’s basically packed the courts with judges who are more willing to rule in ideological ways more so than what the rule of law dictates.

Now, this judicial takeover is bearing fruit when it effectively overturned Roe v Wade. From the BBC:

In an unsigned ruling backed by a narrow 5-4 majority, the court justices allowed a Texas law banning all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy to go into effect.

The move stunned many legal observers and abortion-rights advocates, who were expecting the court to suspend the law until after the justices decided the Mississippi case.

As the judicial dust settles, here are five significant implications of the court’s action.

Reportedly, not only is the legal community stunned by this turn of events, so were the dissenting judges. So, the immediate question then becomes, what can happen to reverse the damage by this decision? Many turned to government seemingly as a last resort. US President, Joe Biden, says that he is looking into what he can do. From CP24:

President Joe Biden on Thursday blasted the Supreme Court’s decision not to block a new Texas law banning most abortions in the state and directed federal agencies to do what they can to “insulate women and providers” from the impact.

Hours earlier, in the middle of the night, a deeply divided high court allowed the law to remain in force. It is the nation’s biggest curb to abortion rights since the court announced in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to abortion.

The court voted 5-4 to deny an emergency appeal from abortion providers and others but also suggested that their order likely wasn’t the last word and other challenges can be brought.

Biden said in a statement that his administration will launch a “whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision” and look at “what steps the federal government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions as protected by Roe.”

Now, some readers might be looking at this story in confusion. Why is this being reported here? Well, as it turns out, Texas’ anti-abortion law is so far reaching (many call it Orwellian), that is also has huge implications for free speech online. Provisions in the law say that it is illegal to give medical advice related to abortions. That, of course, includes over the Internet. People who give such advice can open themselves up to fines whether or not an abortion even took place. This has caused digital rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to voice their concern over this. From the EFF:

In addition to the drastic restrictions it places on a woman’s reproductive and medical care rights, the new Texas abortion law, SB8, will have devastating effects on online speech.

The law creates a cadre of bounty hunters who can use the courts to punish and silence anyone whose online advocacy, education, and other speech about abortion draws their ire. It will undoubtedly lead to a torrent of private lawsuits against online speakers who publish information about abortion rights and access in Texas, with little regard for the merits of those lawsuits or the First Amendment protections accorded to the speech. Individuals and organizations providing basic educational resources, sharing information, identifying locations of clinics, arranging rides and escorts, fundraising to support reproductive rights, or simply encouraging women to consider all their options—now have to consider the risk that they might be sued for merely speaking. The result will be a chilling effect on speech and a litigation cudgel that will be used to silence those who seek to give women truthful information about their reproductive options.

SB8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, encourages private persons to file lawsuits against anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion.” It doesn’t matter whether that person “knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of the law,” that is, the law’s new and broadly expansive definition of illegal abortion. And you can be liable even if you simply intend to help, regardless, apparently, of whether an illegal abortion actually resulted from your assistance.

And although you may defend a lawsuit if you believed the doctor performing the abortion complied with the law, it is really hard to do so. You must prove that you conducted a “reasonable investigation,” and as a result “reasonably believed” that the doctor was following the law. That’s a lot to do before you simply post something to the internet, and of course you will probably have to hire a lawyer to help you do it.

While one might think that this idea of people snooping and ratting out each other for giving medical advice might seem like something that is a ways down the road, the fact of the matter, websites were already being set up to take advantage of this bounty hunting that this legalizes. The Texas Right to Life group set up a so-called “whistle-blowing” site for anyone who wishes to turn people over to authorities for giving medical advice. That website has been shut down because GoDaddy is refusing to host such a site. From ArsTechnica:

The Texas Right to Life group will have to find a new hosting provider for its website that encourages people to report violations of the state’s restrictive new anti-abortion law.

GoDaddy took action after Gizmodo reported that Texas Right to Life’s new website, prolifewhistleblower.com, seems to violate a GoDaddy rule that says website operators may not “collect or harvest (or permit anyone else to collect or harvest) any User Content or any non-public or personally identifiable information about another user or any other person or entity without their express prior written consent.” GoDaddy’s terms of service also say that customers cannot use the web hosting platform in a way that “[v]iolates the privacy or publicity rights of another User or any other person or entity, or breaches any duty of confidentiality that you owe to another User or any other person or entity.”

GoDaddy now says that the website has less than 24 hours to find a new hosting provider. “Last night we informed prolifewhistleblower.com they have violated GoDaddy’s terms of service and have 24 hours to move to a different provider,” GoDaddy told Ars in a statement. GoDaddy previously confirmed the action to The New York Times and Newsweek.

GoDaddy told Ars that “the site violated multiple provisions, including, but not limited to, Section 5.2 of our terms of service.” That section is the one that prohibits sites from using GoDaddy to “collect or harvest… non-public or personally identifiable information” without people’s prior written consent.

Since that report was published, the organization since went shopping for a new host and the site came back online. This time, with Digital Ocean playing host. Upon learning this, Digital Ocean cut off services to the site. It since used the domain registrar, Epik to at least keep its domain name up. Of course, file-sharers will quickly recognize this as a whack-a-mole proposition. Sooner or later, a service who is willing to look the other way while the site owners carry on their for profit online harassment and legal bullying campaign will be found. After all, there is seemingly a lot of money in making America a more barbaric society controlled by mob rule.

Meanwhile, ride hailing services Uber and Lyft are vowing to protect their drivers from the legal tyranny of the law. They said that they will pay the legal fees for anyone on the receiving end of a lawsuit. From the CBC:

Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft said Friday they will cover the legal fees of any driver who is sued under the new law prohibiting most abortions in Texas.

The Texas law bans abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks and often before women know they’re pregnant. Rather than be enforced by government authorities, the law gives citizens the right to file civil suits and collect damages against anyone aiding an abortion — including those who transport women to clinics.

San Francisco-based Lyft said it has created a fund to cover 100 per cent of the legal fees for drivers sued under the law while driving on its platform. Calling the Texas law “an attack on women’s right to choose,” Lyft also said it would donate $1 million to Planned Parenthood.

“We want to be clear: Drivers are never responsible for monitoring where their riders go or why. Imagine being a driver and not knowing if you are breaking the law by giving someone a ride,” Lyft said in a statement.

Some fear that other states may be motivated to also turn back the hands of time and take America back to darker times and follow the lead of Texas. At this point, unless there is some kind of action from another arm of government, it’s looking like country could easily slip into far right mob rule before too long. It’s certainly an ugly situation to say the least.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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