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How will big tech navigate the end of Roe v. Wade?

How will big tech navigate the end of Roe v. Wade?

America is on the brink of stripping away half a century of abortion rights. The decision will present major challenges for the tech states

Here’s what you need to know this week:

  • Affairs of state: Big tech and the end of Roe v. Wade

State-by-state:

  • Apple faced a mini revolt
  • Microsoft is doubling-down on cybersecurity
  • Meta froze hiring
  • Google experimented with its offices
  • Amazon dismissed pro-union managers
  • Tencent received a quantum patent

Affairs of state: How will big tech navigate the end of Roe v. Wade?

Last week, a Supreme Court opinion was leaked which, if passed down in its current form, would overturn Roe v. Wade 1973 and reverse the decision to guarantee a constitutional right to abortion throughout the United States. 

US-based technology companies – including America’s second biggest employer, Amazon – are faced with serious challenges if the final ruling is passed. So are their employees.

The first challenge is obvious: how should the tech states respond if Roe is reversed? Should they pay for or subsidise employees forced to travel across state lines to have legal abortions? Should their liberal-leaning CEOs condemn the decision and risk alienating a huge swathe of the US population? 

The second challenge is less obvious but potentially even trickier: what happens if the tech states’ own surveillance infrastructure is used by law enforcement to crack down on “illegal” abortions? Social media companies control huge quantities of data which could incriminate people having, seeking or aiding in abortions. 

In a sense, the tech states face both a front-end and a back-end problem: one with their employees’ health provisions, the other a threat arising from one of their core business propositions – holding personal data about intimate user behaviours.

What have the tech states already said? Amazon has said it will pay travel expenses for non-life-threatening medical treatments for its staff up to a cost of $4,000, including for abortion. However, Amazon’s policy will not cover the 115,000 delivery drivers or other “in field” employees who work on Amazon logistics. It also potentially leaves out Amazon’s 2.9 million temporary and subcontracted workers.

Apple has also said it would cover medical expenses for employees in Texas seeking abortions out of state. It would likely extend this provision to all employees in states where restrictive abortion laws take affect if Roe v. Wade is overturned. 

Meta’s COO Sheryl Sandberg said of the leaked opinion that it made for “a scary day for all women” and believes that “every woman, no matter where she lives, must be free to choose whether and when she becomes a mother”. The company itself has made no official statement on support or reimbursement since the leak, however. Google and Microsoft, at time of writing, have made no official statement.

Is that enough? Dr Sam Dickman, an abortion provider in Texas, said there are still many problems with the provision of support from companies. 

Some workers will be unable to sustain the cost of multiple days off work, or pay for a place to sleep overnight if they travel. Such expenses are not necessarily covered by current medical provisions, Dr Dickman said. 

“Many people will be unable to travel due to caregiving duties for children… or if they cannot travel safely if they tell the people they live with that they’re getting an abortion”. 

“Amazon [for example] has thousands of mostly low-wage workers across the country, many of whom work in states likely to ban abortion”. 

What about the law enforcement and data issue? Almost all the tech states hold personal data about where their users go, what they search for and buy. This includes data on people seeking or discussing abortions. So – post Roe – companies like Google, Apple and Facebook will have to navigate a new relationship with law enforcement over illegal abortions. 

“Big tech companies are not nearly ready to face the scale of pressure they will receive from law enforcement to use their platforms as a way to police pregnant people,” says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. He added that those seeking abortion care should be ready to have their data used to prosecute them. 

Apple, for example, has allowed law enforcement access to data under court order, including iMessage, iCloud and location information.

Meta’s Facebook holds direct message data containing conversations about abortion. It also, Fox Cahn told us, may be subject to law enforcement demands for information on abortion-related content groups, and could be forced to moderate abortion advice on the basis of banned advocacy for criminal activities.

Keyword and search return data are likely to make Google the most targeted big tech company. Geolocation data is often demanded by police under warrant to identify people who have visited a specific location – which could be a clinic, or site where illegal abortions are known to have taken place. 

Google has faced complications in the past over results for search terms like “where can I get an abortion near me?”, which have presented women with the locations of crisis pregnancy centres – non-medical facilities that frequently discourage women from having abortions – rather than actual medical clinics.

Fox Cahn said “it remains unclear whether there will be any limitation on the ability of officials in a given state, like Texas, to prosecute someone for an abortion that takes place out of state… so you may see people going to Connecticut thinking that it is safe to get an abortion, returning home and being arrested based off location data from one of these companies.”

What happens next? The leaked draft is not binding, and a final decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is due by the end of the next Supreme Court session, in June or early July. 

But conservative lawmakers – for whom the reversal of Roe is a decades-long mission – have already hinted at retaliations against companies seeking to soften the blow of restrictive abortion laws on their employees. 

Citigroup – one of the other US-based companies to have announced abortion reimbursement and support for staff – has been targeted by Texas state representative Briscoe Cain. 

Cain has said his state “will enact law necessary to prevent the misuse of shareholder money and hold Citigroup accountable for its violation of our state’s abortion laws”. He introduced a bill that would prevent Citigroup doing business with local government agencies in Texas, unless it stopped providing abortion-related benefits.

There’s every possibility that Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft would face similar threats if they continued.

“It seems quite clear that the moment that the [abortion] procedure is outlawed, the general counsel at these companies will advise, and they will not be willing to break to law” Fox Cahn said. “Abortion will be a crime in many states”, and these large companies will comply with the law on both fronts; providing data where required by the courts, and cutting off vital support to those most in need of it. 


Apple: Return to work

Apple’s new return to work policy – requiring employees to be in the office three days a week – caused a mini-revolt a few weeks ago, when a workers’ group calling itself Apple Together complained that “office-found work is a technology from the last century”. Now Ian Goodfellow, Apple’s high-profile director of machine learning, has reportedly quit over the policy. This is a big deal: Goodfellow is at the forefront of Apple’s next-gen tech – and the company did well to poach him from Google back in 2019. Apple is in a bind here: shortly before the pandemic it finished its $5 billion Apple Park campus. Now no one wants to work there. 


Microsoft: Talent wars

Microsoft is doubling down on cyber-security, now the fastest growing part of its business. Satya Nadella, the CEO, has already quadrupled the company’s cybersecurity R&D spending from $1 billion to $4 billion. Now he wants to focus on talent. Third party companies will be able to hire Microsoft cyber security to patrol their systems – from only $3 a month. The play puts the tech giant in direct competition with companies like Crowdstrike. “This whole area is growing in double digits,” Craig Robinson, an analyst, told CNBC. Microsoft now has to scale up to meet demand. “I’m sure there’s 1,000 openings at Microsoft right now, at least in security,” Robinson said.


Meta: Hiring freeze

Headwinds at Facebook parent Meta Platforms: the tech state is planning to slow or halt hiring for most mid-to-senior level positions. Some interviews have been scrapped half way through an application, according to Fox Business. An internal memo from CFO David Wehner suggested that Apple’s data privacy changes on iOS devices, a downturn across the industry and the war in Ukraine as reasons for the hiring freeze. But in truth, Facebook was struggling to meet recruiting goals before that – as this leaked memo from 2021 showed.


Google: Return to work part II

Like Apple, Google is forcing its employees to return to the office at least three days a week. But it’s trying to make office space more inviting. Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer, has been experimenting at Alphabet’s offices. His team built a shared work area where employees could slide doors shut to create an enclosed space for “heads down” work. “It’s a bit like baboons showing how available they are to mate,” Mr Heatherwick explained helpfully. “You can slide your door depending on how focused you are: ‘Close the door, I’m working, don’t disturb me, I’m on a Zoom call.’ Have it slightly open, like, ‘I could be available to talk.’”


Amazon: Dismissal

Amazon fired managers involved in the successful unionisation at its Staten Island warehouse. Last month, workers at the JKF8 facility voted to unionise. Amazon appears to have retaliated by dismissing more than a dozen senior managers from the site outside of the company’s typical employee review cycle. The New York Times reported that the employees felt they had been dismissed in response to the union vote, while Amazon claims it was making management changes “to continually improve” after evaluating aspects of its “operations and leadership”.


Tencent: Quantum patent

Tencent has been granted a patent for a quantum chip. Quantum computing is focused on developing computers that perform tasks by harnessing the laws of quantum mechanics. They may eventually solve problems too complex for classical computers. Tencent’s filing shows that the China National Intellectual Property Administration has granted a patent for a “Frequency Control Signal Processing Method of Qubit, Superconducting Quantum Chip”. A qubit is the quantum bit that these computers rely on to make superfast calculations. Tencent is locked in an innovation race with other Chinese companies – Alibaba and Baidu – to produce crucial components for advanced technology like artificial intelligence within China. 

Thanks for reading,

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Alexi Mostrous
@AlexiMostrous