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Google employees demand end to collection of abortion data

In the wake of the US Supreme Court rolling back abortion rights, Google employees are calling on the company to stop collecting abortion-related data, so that it can never be shared with police

More than 650 Google employees have signed a petition calling on the company to ensure that users’ abortion and other health-related data is never saved or shared with US law enforcement.

The petition comes in the wake of the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade in June 2022, which rolled back abortion rights by returning abortion law decisions to individual US states, ending a nearly 50-year-old precedent and triggering strict bans on procedures in many states that had never repealed their old laws.

Sent to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and other key executives by the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) on 18 August, the petition calls on the company to immediately institute tighter data privacy controls for all health-related activity, including for searches about reproductive justice, gender-affirming care, and abortion access information.

On 1 July, Google committed to pushing back on “overly broad demands from law enforcement”, and further promised to delete location history data for users who visited abortion clinics, domestic violence shelters and addiction treatment facilities “soon after they visit”.

However, the company’s employees want Google to go further by ensuring that this information is never saved in the first place.

“We know companies are often legally required to hand over data, which is why we are demanding that Google stop collecting data on users seeking abortion information – period,” said the AWU on Twitter. “It’s the only way to protect it from law enforcement. Users should be free to search for abortions without fear.”

Bambi Okugawa, a Google datacentre technician and AWU member, said that, having recently read about Facebook handing over abortion-related information to Nebraska police, leading to felony charges for a 17-year-old over an allegedly illegal abortion, “it became clear that tech companies are not going far enough to protect workers and users in a post-Roe America”.

Okugawa added: “If tech companies, be it Facebook, Google or Bing, truly want to be an ally to those looking to get an abortion, they need to refuse to share users’ information regarding abortion searches.”

However, Facebook contends that the search warrant it received for the data did not ask for health-specific data, and did not mention anything about an abortion.

Read more about data sharing with law enforcement

Okugawa said tech companies must also “do their due diligence to make sure false information that could make users unsafe isn’t circulating the site”, with employees making further demands on the company to fix misleading search results about fake abortion providers, and to no longer work with publishers of disinformation who violate Google’s advertising policies by pushing unreliable or harmful claims about abortion.

Another major demand is for Google to extend its abortion-related health benefits to all its contractors.

Although Google’s health insurance does provide employees with cover for out-of-state abortion procedures and relocation support, these benefits are limited to full-time employees, which the AWU says excludes more than half of Alphabet’s workforce who are “misclassified” as temporary, vendor or contract workers.

“Google has the money and resources to ensure that all its employees, contracted or not, have access to abortion,” said Alejandra Beatty, AWU Southwest Chapter lead and a technical program manager at Alphabet subsidiary Verily. “They emailed us right after the ruling to affirm their support for their full-time employees getting abortions, but did not address how contracted workers, who tend to have more marginalised identities, would be supported in trying to exercise their right to choose. Google can and should do better.”

The petition added that, in order to meet these demands: “We call on Alphabet to create a dedicated task force with 50% employee representation, responsible for implementing changes across all products and our company, just like Alphabet did for handling the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Computer Weekly contacted Google about the petition but received no response by time of publication. The AWU has similarly received no response from the company.

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