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Friday, June 9, 2023

The Texas Abortion ‘Whistleblower’ Site Still Can't Find a Host

Under a recently passed Texas law, private citizens can sue anyone involved in helping a person receive an abortion in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy. In response, an anti-abortion group called Texas Right to Life set up a website designed to collect anonymous information about any alleged infractions. Or, at least, it tried to. So far, no company has been willing to host it.

The fate of prolifewhistleblower.com remains uncertain, and its absence from the internet does not negate the Texas law or its impacts. But in recent years, internet infrastructure giants have begun to draw blurry lines around who they're willing to have as customers, a sometimes murky process exemplified by the travails of far-right social media network Parler. In contrast, prolifewhistleblower.com offers a rare example of consensus about what constitutes acceptable behavior online.

The site did make a brief appearance on the internet, launching last Wednesday, but had an ignominious start. First, a small army of TikTok and Reddit users flooded the reporting mechanism with false claims in an attempt to overwhelm the system. By Saturday, the web hosting service GoDaddy had terminated its relationship with the site for violating the company’s terms of service, which explicitly forbid collecting identifying information about third parties without their prior consent.

“The big thing is that in some cases services should warn the user and give them a chance to cure," says Whitney Merrill, a privacy and data protection lawyer and former Federal Trade Commission attorney. “Like how GoDaddy warned the site owner that they were doing something in violation of the terms. That’s not a legal requirement, just a good business practice in my mind.”

Texas Right to Life then registered the site with the notorious service provider Epik, which has been known to offer safe haven to contentious platforms like Parler and Gab. But Epik never offered to host prolifewhistleblower.com content, only a way to register the site's domain. On Saturday evening, prolifewhistleblower.com simply started redirecting to the Texas Right to Life homepage rather than reviving its previous incarnation as a tip submission system.

“We contacted the owner of the domain, who agreed to disable the collection of user submissions on this domain,” Epik said in a statement on Saturday. In other words, Epik will act as prolifewhistleblower.com’s registrar so long as it's only redirecting to the group's main site. If it resumes collecting third-party data, Epik will pull its registration.

Texas Right to Life spokesperson Kim Schwartz offers a different assessment of the situation. “Prolifewhistleblower.com is currently forwarding to TexasRightToLife.com because we're establishing extra security protocols to protect our users before we put it back up," she said in a statement Monday evening. She added that the site has lined up a new host, but is not saying which hosting company “for security reasons.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, though, the URL continued to redirect to the Texas Right to Life homepage. And given that the site's entire premise is gathering information about people who may have helped facilitate an abortion in Texas—an inherent violation of basic third-party data collection protections—it seems unlikely to find a way to come into compliance. 

The situation evokes past conflicts in which internet infrastructure providers have withdrawn hosting, DDoS protection, or other support for extremist sites, causing them to go offline permanently or until they can find new providers. Cloudflare, for example, has grappled with decisions about how to remain neutral and protect speech rights while taking action in extreme cases. The company dropped support for white supremacist and otherwise controversial platforms like the Daily Stormer in 2017 and 8chan in 2019.

“We've had this conversation for a long time about many types of content—political discourse, disinformation, etc.” says Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant. He adds, though, that these challenges have no easy answers. “It’s closely related to moderating free speech and expression online. And in the end it boils down to terms of service versus the legality of expression.”

Digital rights advocates see potential danger in internet infrastructure companies playing the role of content arbiter, fearing inconsistent enforcement and a slippery slope. But the Texas site's issues come down to a clear-cut terms of service violation rather than something muddier.

“Generally speaking, I am leery of content moderation happening at the infrastructure level. That said, I do think there's a real difference between policing behavior versus content,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. “Saying ‘no sharing data on third parties’ is a clear rule that you can enforce evenly regardless of why people are doing it.”

Meanwhile, activity related to the new Texas abortion law has run afoul of more than just infrastructure providers. A Reddit forum called r/txbountyhunters launched on Thursday when the law went into effect, with the advertised purpose of "sharing tips on identifying, reporting, and collecting bounty on those breaking Texas law TX SB8." Reddit banned the forum that same day, because it violated the platform's content policy against “harassing content.”

Keeping prolifewhistleblower.com offline doesn't stop anyone from filing lawsuits under the Texas law. The legislation itself still stands. But the activity it encourages goes against the internet's most basic privacy and community security protections—and so far, not even the most radical hosting providers want to be a party to that.

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