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OK, Google: Why are you still pointing women at fake abortion clinics?

And no, the tiny fine print in search results doesn't cut it

Google is still effectively directing women seeking abortions to anti-abortion centers that masquerade as legit abortion clinics.

This is despite the internet giant's wider efforts to convince us it's committed to protecting reproductive rights in post-Roe America.

According to a Tech Transparency Project (TTP) report published on Thursday, women using Google to find abortion providers continue to be shown, in the search results, ads for so-called pregnancy crisis centers, which offer no medical services for those seeking a termination and instead try to talk pregnant women out of a procedure.

For its investigation, TTP used a fresh, logged-out Google Chrome with no prior browsing history. Additionally, for location-specific searches, the researchers used a VPN to make it look like they were searching from that location used in the search. 

Here's what happened next, according to the TTP researchers:

We quickly found more than a dozen questionable crisis pregnancy center ads. For example, when our test user searched for 'Where can I get an abortion in Illinois,' Google served an ad for a 'Free Abortion Pill.' But the ad was for Prestonwood Pregnancy Center, a crisis pregnancy center based in Texas.

Needless to say, Prestonwood doesn't provide medical abortions or free abortion pills. These and other crisis pregnancy center ads do, in very small type in the search results, note: "Does not provide abortions."

But this admission is largely overshadowed by a much bigger headline advertising "Free Abortion Pill," in Perstonwood's case, and other seemingly misleading phrases, such as "Safe Abortion" and "Medication Abortion" on various other anti-abortion center ads.

Meanwhile, Google has policies that require advertisers that want to use abortion-related keywords or phrases to complete a certification process that verifies whether or not they provide the procedure.

It also has a misrepresentation policy, which prohibits advertisers from promoting products or services that they do not actually offer. And Prestonwood ads, using phrases such as "free abortion pill," which TTP says turned up "repeatedly" in its Google searches, do seem to flout all of the above.

Google's response

When asked to respond to the allegations in the TTP report, a Google spokesperson pointed to its abortion-specific and more general ad policies.

"We have clear and longstanding policies that govern abortion-related ads on our platforms, which we apply consistently to all advertisers," the spokesperson told The Register.

"As part of this, we require any organization that wants to advertise to people seeking information about abortion services to be certified and prominently disclose whether they do or do not offer abortions," the spokesperson added. "We also don't allow advertisers to misrepresent what products or services they provide, and we remove ads that violate this policy."

And yet … Prestonwood. 

Google and other companies that collect massive amounts of search, location, and other potentially sensitive data on people have come under fire from privacy and digital rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers alike since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. There is a concern that this kind of data will be obtained – as we've seen in Nebraska – by law enforcement to build a criminal case against women seeking abortions and anyone helping them, if they are in states that forbid the procedure.

California's Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) this week signed off a law that prohibits businesses headquartered in the Golden State, which includes Google, from handing over records about a person the company "knows or should know" is related to an abortion investigation — even if served with a warrant.

Google has taken some steps to reassure netizens it is committed to protecting users' privacy, and the right to an abortion. This includes updating its location tracking so that visits to medical clinics and similarly sensitive places are automatically deleted, and pledging to clearly label healthcare clinics that provide abortion services in search results and in its Maps app.

Google should enforce its policies and pull ads that try to mislead women, said Campaign for Accountability executive director Michelle Kuppersmith. The Campaign for Accountability is a nonprofit watchdog group that runs the TTP.

"In an effort to maximize the number of advertisers it can take money from, Google has chosen to stick by an ad review system that is putting people at serious risk of being manipulated in their pursuit of important medical care," Kuppersmith said in a statement. "If Google can't find a way to profit from sensitive health topics safely, it shouldn't be profiting from them at all." ®

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