First appeared in NewsBreak
By Aron Solomon
Last year, in response to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Casey and Roe abortion cases in the Dobbs decision, Google promised not to track abortion data. Have they kept to the spirit and letter of their promise?
Google has been under fire from privacy advocates for years. Last year, the company was found to be tracking users’ locations even after they turned off location history. And they’ve been accused of not doing enough to protect users’ privacy.
When you search for abortion information on Google, you won’t see ads for abortion services or providers.
When you search for abortion information on Google, you won’t see any ads related to the topic. However, if you search for other kinds of medical information (like “how to treat diabetes”), there may be some sponsored results that pop up.
The company says it doesn’t collect or store data about users’ search history when they look for abortion-related information.
As Attorney Adriana Gonzalez observed,
“Google has a policy that prohibits advertisers from targeting people who search for abortion services. The company says it doesn’t collect or store data about users’ search history when they look for abortion-related information.”
Google’s privacy policies have been updated since the company first launched its ad platform in 2000, but Google still isn’t transparent about how much data it collects from individual users, said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America. She would like to see more transparency around what kinds of information Google collects and how it uses that data.
But there’s more to the story.
Google still collects data about user searches for abortion-related information. The company says it doesn’t track or collect data about users’ search history when they look for abortion services, but it does keep tabs on what people search for in general–including terms like “abortion,” which could be used as a euphemism for something else (like “history”). And it uses that information to target ads at them later on: If you searched for “abortion” one day, Google might show you an ad related to its own product offering when you visit another website later on.
Google also says it doesn’t use this information from general searches as part of its ad targeting system because it’s not relevant enough; however, even if this were true (and we don’t know if it is), there would still be cause for concern over whether users’ privacy was protected adequately when using these services.
Google pledged not to track or allow advertisers to target people who search for abortion services.
Google made the pledge way back in 2017, when it partnered with NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood to announce a new policy called the “Don’t Track Abortion” initiative. The policy says that Google won’t allow advertisers to target people who search for abortion services, nor will it collect or store data about users’ search history when they look for these services.
The idea behind this is to prevent anti-abortion activists from tracking people who are looking into having an abortion so they can harass them later–and it’s one way that Google is trying its best not to be evil (or at least not as evil).
But while Google may not be collecting or storing this information itself anymore, there’s no guarantee that other companies aren’t still doing so on their own servers–which means there might still be ways for anti-abortion groups like Live Action News or Operation Rescue/Operation Save America (ORA)
That policy has come under fire from advocates who say the company is still collecting user data related to searches for abortions and birth control by tracking URLs on a list of sites known as “do not track” lists.
These lists aren’t updated in real-time and can have errors, so Google has developed ways to catch sites that get added or removed from them over time.
To do this, the company uses machine learning (ML) technology – a type of artificial intelligence that allows computers to learn without being explicitly programmed. ML models are built based on existing data sets as well as any additional information provided by users who want their web browsing activity tracked by Google Analytics; they’re then used to detect changes in the lists over time and flag those sites that should be included on either list based on their new status as either a tracker or non-tracker site.*
Google also relies heavily on its own staff members who manually check websites against these lists every day.* This ensures accuracy when identifying whether a website should be included on one side of either list or another.*
The company says it uses tools like machine learning to do this and that the process is fully automated, so no humans are involved in making decisions about which sites get added or removed from the lists.
Google’s not doing anything illegal, but it does raise questions about what happens when you give an algorithm so much power over your life – especially when that algorithm can’t be trusted to always make fair decisions.
Google still collects some data in order to keep its promise not to track abortion information
Google says that this “anonymous” data is used for things like improving their products–and also for ad targeting purposes: “We may use the anonymous results from our ads systems as one factor among others when determining whether or not we show an ad on Google,” reads the company’s website.
So while Google says it’s committed to keeping its promise not to track abortion information and that it doesn’t collect or store data about users’ search history when they look for abortion-related information. But there are still some gaps in the company’s policy that need addressing if Google wants people to trust it with their personal information.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.