ICANN 80; Crusade to stop abortion comes to the internet

ICANN 80; Crusade to stop abortion comes to the internet
Photo by Raimond Klavins / Unsplash

This week, ICANN 80 met in Kigali and here's what you might have missed.

The Governmental Advisory Committee constitutes the voice of governments and intergovernmental organizations and hosted a High-Level Governance Meeting. The HLGM covered cybersecurity and meaningful connectivity and was invite-only but published its session recordings. https://gac.icann.org/agendas/icann80-hybrid-meeting-agenda#09June2024

There weren't many discussions about human rights on the agenda, but the Non-Commercial Users Constituency– a stakeholder group of the Generic Names Supporting Organisation– touched on some human rights process questions https://icann80.sched.com/event/1dr69/gnso-ncuc-issue-forum-work-session

Several sessions discussed DNS abuse, the mitigation of which is now required by registries, ostensibly upon report or request. Another side has always been law enforcement requests of DNS user data. Tucows sets an example in transparency and data-driven evidence ahead of ICANN80 by publishing law enforcement disclosure requests. https://opensrs.com/blog/tiered-access-update-law-enforcement-foreign-and-local-and-fresh-2024-statistics.

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In other news

Stop taking down abortion websites.

After this week's unanimous US Supreme Court decision to preserve access to abortion pills Jessica Valenti writes, "Anti-abortion groups will continue chipping away at everything they can on various fronts- fronts-from the bullshit claim that abortion medication poisons the environment and harassment campaigns against pharmacies, to state legislation that ramps up ultrasound requirements, waiting periods and more." The emphasis is mine.

In the wake of a bizarre website takedown request, I spoke with my colleague Venny Ala-Siurua who is the executive director of Women on Web, a Canadian non-profit founded in the early 2000s that helps people find safe abortion pills in almost 200 countries. Where they operate is not the same thing as where they are allowed to operate. They're censored outright in Turkey, Spain and South Korea. Venny's pat response to "how's it going?" is, "Working on abortion on the internet is hard."

That takedown request I mentioned was against a site that published abortion access information by an Ecuadorian nonprofit, hosted by a Canadian company, whose servers were managed by Hetzner in Germany and physically located in Finland.

Censorship of abortion websites has been documented by OONI in a 2019 report "On the blocking of abortion rights websites: Women on Waves & Women on Web". Censorship seems to be performed by most countries (Turkey, South Korea, Spain, Brazil, UK, Iran, Russia) at the DNS, but that deep packet inspection and server name indication might also be used. The censorship also extends to challenges to the presence of these nonprofits on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Just out this week is an Amnesty report, “Obstacles To Autonomy: Post-Roe Removal Of Abortion Information Online.” It concludes with six actionable recommendations for social media companies to, “ensure that accurate reproductive health and rights information can be easily accessed and… shared.”

Women on Web explicitly do not sell abortion pills. In fact, I found it fascinating to learn that their structure provides protection for local providers and patients alike. They are an intermediary in both directions: on-the-ground services and groups send abortion-seekers to womenonweb.com for health information and to request abortion pills; they then connect with trusted international pharmacies to send pills to the user. They do critical work to educate people seeking information about self-managing an abortion at home or direct them to trusted providers in their locality. Women on Web are challenging censorship in the courts of Turkey, Spain and South Korea.

Takedown requests to intermediaries are even more extreme and durable than jurisdictional blocks, because these threaten to take websites down for all users, everywhere, effectively silencing reproductive health nonprofits irrespective of legal protections for abortion. The takedown notice text that I have seen indicates the grounds for takedown hinge entirely upon the false claim that they are operating as illegal online pharmacies, which catches the attention of service providers ever since the 2011 US Department of Justice suit against Google that cost them $500 million.

After digging into this, the main insights I’ve gleaned are:

  • Inaccurate flags of pharmaceutical fraud leading to global website takedowns are more common than they should be and service providers over comply without checking.
  • Abortion providers must also be online censorship experts across the jurisdictions in which they operate.
  • Strategic litigation to fight censorship on free expression and right to information grounds can be a wedge issue to push back on broader restrictions to abortion within a given jurisdiction.

The crucial takeaway is that abortion accompaniment groups are not online pharmacies by any measure. All of these sites say directly that they provide information and are referring to trusted providers. The right to disseminate and to access reliable information on sexual health and reproductive rights is protected under the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and information.

So, stop taking down reproductive health websites.

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