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Fresh fears after Facebook’s role in US abortion case

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Facebook's role in an abortion prosecution has raised fresh worries from advocates

Facebook’s role in an abortion prosecution has raised fresh worries from advocates – Copyright AFP/File Javed TANVEER

Glenn CHAPMAN

Facebook sparked outrage by complying with US police probing an abortion case, boosting simmering fears the platform will be a tool for clamping down on the procedure.

Criticism built after media reports revealed the social networking giant had turned over messages key to a mother being criminally charged with an abortion for her daughter.

Advocates had warned of exactly this kind of thing after America’s top court revoked the national right to abortion in late June, as big tech companies hold a trove of data on users locations and behavior.

Jessica Burgess, 41, was accused of helping her 17-year-old daughter to terminate a pregnancy in the midwestern US state of Nebraska.

She faces five charges — including one under a 2010 law which only allows abortion up to 20 weeks after fertilization.

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The daughter faces three charges, including one of concealing or abandoning a corpse.

Yet Facebook owner Meta defended itself Tuesday by noting the Nebraska court order “didn’t mention abortion at all”, and came before the Supreme Court’s highly divisive decision in June to overturn Roe v Wade, the case which conferred right to abortion in the United States.

“That sentence would seem to imply that *if* the search warrants mentioned abortion, there would be a different result. But of course that’s not true,” tweeted Logan Koepke, who researches on how technology impacts issues like criminal justice.

When queried about handing over the data, the Silicon Valley giant pointed AFP to its policy of complying with government requests when “the law requires us to do so.”

Nebraska’s restrictions were adopted years before Roe was overturned. Some 16 states have outright bans or limits in the early weeks of pregnancy in their jurisdictions.

– ‘Can’t release encrypted chats’ –

For tech world watchers, the Nebraska case surely won’t be the last.

“This is going to keep happening to companies that have vast amounts of data about people across the country and around the world,” said Alexandra Givens, CEO of the non-profit Center for Democracy & Technology.

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She went on to note that if companies receive a duly-issued legal request, under a valid law, there are strong incentives for them to want to comply with that request.

“The companies at a minimum have to make sure that they’re insisting on a full legal process, that warrants are specific and not a fishing expedition, searches are very narrowly construed and that they notify users so that users can try to push back,” Givens added.

Meta did not provide AFP the Nebraska court’s order. The police filing asked the judge to order the company not to tell Burgess’s daughter about the search warrant for her Facebook messages.

“I have reason to believe that notifying the subscriber or customer of the issuance of this search warrant may result in the destruction of or tampering with evidence,” police detective Ben McBride wrote.

He told the court he began investigating “concerns” in late April that Burgess’s daughter had given birth prematurely to a “stillborn child”, which they allegedly buried together.

Advocates noted that apart from not using Meta’s products, one sure way to keep users’ communications out of government hands would be for them to be automatically encrypted.

Meta-owned WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, which means the company does not have access to the information, but that level of privacy protection is not the default setting on Facebook messenger.

“The company has never said it would not comply with a request from law enforcement in a situation related to abortions,” said Caitlin Seeley George, a campaign director at advocacy group Fight for the Future.

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“If users could rely on encrypted messaging, Meta wouldn’t even be in a position where they could share conversations,” she added.

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Meta Will Shut Down its Newsletter Platform Early Next Year

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Meta's Reallocating Resources Away from Bulletin and its News Tab, Which Could See Publishers Lose Out

In news that will surprise no-one, Meta has today confirmed that it’s shutting down its ‘Bulletin’ newsletter platform, just 18 months after its initial launch.

Another sign of Meta’s fleeting interest in the latest trends, the company launched Bulletin in April 2021, as part of an effort to take a piece of the growing newsletter market, with platforms like Substack seeing massive growth in facilitating direct connection between writers and their audiences. Twitter also acquired newsletter platform Revue, and it had seemed, at the time, that newsletters could offer a new, supplementary income stream for creators, aligned with social apps.

In addition to this, Meta also saw an opportunity to provide a platform for local publications that had been shut down due to the pandemic. With ad dollars from local businesses drying up, due to lockdown measures, many smaller publications had to shut down, and Meta viewed this as a chance to make Facebook an even more critical element of community engagement, by providing a direct pathway for independent journalists to serve their audiences through the app.

As part of its initial push, Meta allocated $5 million in funding for local publications to convert to Bulletin instead.

And it sort of worked. Bulletin, at last at one stage, supported over 115 publications, with more than half of the creators on the platform reaching over 1,000 subscribers.

But this year, amid tougher market conditions, Meta lost interest.

The company has been gradually scaling back its investment in news and original content in recent months. Back in July, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meta had reallocated resources from both its Facebook News tab and Bulletin, in order to ‘heighten their focus on building a more robust Creator economy’

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In other words, Reels – Meta’s main investment focus for the future of the Creator Economy is short-form video content, which drives more views, more engagement, and is the big trend that Meta’s chasing right now.

As a result, Meta says that it will shut down Bulletin by early next year.

As per Meta:

“Bulletin has allowed us to learn about the relationship between Creators and their audiences and how to better support them in building their community on Facebook. While this off-platform product itself is ending, we remain committed to supporting these and other Creators’ success and growth on our platform.”

So long as they create Reels, I guess.

Again, the decision here is no surprise, but it does serve as another reminder that Meta chases whatever trends it can, and it has no real, long-term commitment on any of its new pushes.

Video is the thing, as it has been several times before, and Meta will keep pushing that till audiences lose interest. Then it’ll be something else that Meta’s pitching to brands, publishers, users, etc.

Logically, Meta follows the latest trends in order to maximize the benefit of such within its tools. But it is worth noting that, when it does lose interest, it tends to move on entirely, leaving anyone who’s invested in its last whim out in the cold.

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Overall, Bulletin isn’t huge, and it won’t impact a heap of writers and publishers, as such. But even so, for those that have invested in the platform, in good faith, it’s a bitter pill, and while they will now be able to move on to other platforms as well, it’s good to remind yourself that Meta chases trends, and moves on quick.

‘Don’t build on rented land’. ‘Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket’. Don’t trust social platforms to keep supporting that feature or platform that you’ve come to rely on.

The closure of Bulletin may seem like a side note to many, but it’s an important reminder that you need to diversify your strategy to avoid such impacts.

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