Personal Tech

Google pushes fake abortion clinic ads to lower-income women, report says

At least those who live in Phoenix and Atlanta

Google is more likely to push ads for fake abortion clinics toward lower-income women in two major US cities in states that ban the procedure after six weeks, such as in the contested case in Georgia, and 15 weeks for Arizona, according to research by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) .

"Our investigation found that when a TTP-created Google account identifying as a lower- or average-income woman in Phoenix searched for information on how to get an abortion, more than half the search ads (56 percent) served by Google came from crisis pregnancy centers," the report said.

Crisis pregnancy centers are anti-abortion centers that masquerade as legit healthcare providers. They offer no medical services for those seeking to terminate a pregnancy, and instead try to talk women out of a procedure.

For its latest report, TTP registered Google accounts for three women born in 1992 and living in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Miami. Using Google's personalized ad settings, the researchers gave the three accounts a different household income: average or lower income, moderately high, and high.

Then, with a clean Google Chrome browser and using virtual private networks to make it appear the women were searching from Phoenix, Atlanta or Miami, TTP did 15 abortion-related searches — things like "abortion clinic near me" and "I want an abortion" — for each of the nine accounts and recorded all the ads that appeared on the first five search pages. 

A tale of three cities

Here's what the ads looked like based on each fake users' income. 

For the Phoenix lower- or average-income woman, 56 percent of the ads came from the faux crisis pregnancy centers. For comparison: these ads comprised 41 percent of those pushed to women with a moderately high-income woman, and 7 percent of those ranked high-income.

Also in Phoenix, when the lower- or average-income account searched "abortion clinic near me," the very first ad on the search results page came from a so-called crisis pregnancy center, TTP said. 

"But when the moderately high-income and high-income accounts in Phoenix did the same search, they got their first ads from a Planned Parenthood clinic," the report authors wrote.

In Atlanta, the lower or average-income woman saw 42 percent of her ads come from crisis pregnancy centers, compared to moderately high-income (18 percent) and high-income women (29 percent).

Miami was the outlier. This city's high-income woman (39 percent) saw more crisis pregnancy center ads than its moderately high-income (10 percent) and lower or average-income woman (15 percent).

"It's not clear why Miami diverged from the other cities, but one possibility is that crisis pregnancy centers, which often seek to delay women's abortion decisions until they are past the legal window for the procedure, are more actively targeting lower-income women in states like Arizona and Georgia, which have more restrictive abortion laws than Florida," TTP noted.

However, similar to the Phoenix ad results,  when the lower- or average-income Miami woman searched for "abortion clinic near me," her first ad came from a local network of crisis pregnancy centers, while the higher-income women performing the same search each saw an ad from a real abortion provider.

According to TTP, all of this suggests that Google is helping these anti-abortion facilities reach their target audience: young and low-income women. The report cites earlier research [PDF] by NARAL Pro-Choice America [PDF]. According to NARAL, crisis pregnancy centers (CPC) historically place their ads on buses and public transit, or strategically placed billboards.

"To reach their 'target' audience of women they feel are vulnerable and "abortion-minded" CPCs purposely place their outdoor advertising near high schools, colleges, and low-income neighborhoods," the earlier report said. 

Google responds

Around a dozen US states have banned surgical and medical abortions - in some cases even in cases of rape or incest - following the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and removed constitutional rights to abortion. Now, it seems, these centers have turned their attention — and advertising budget — to Google.

When asked about the report, a Google spokesperson told The Register that the ad and search giant has "clear and longstanding policies that govern abortion-related ads on our platforms."

"We don't allow advertisers to specifically target a 'low income' bracket with ads, and we have strict rules about how location can be used to serve locally relevant ads," Google spokesperson Michael Aciman said.

"It's important that people seeking abortion-related resources know what services an advertiser actually provides, so we require any organization that wants to target queries related to getting an abortion to be certified and clearly disclose whether they do or do not offer abortions," Aciman continued. "Last year, we updated these disclosures to make them more visible for users."

In addition to its abortion-related policies and certification process, Google also operates a misrepresentation policy that prohibits advertisers from promoting products or services that they do not actually offer. 

However, TTP suggests that Google doesn't always enforce these rules:

"For example, when the lower or average-income woman in Atlanta searched for 'Planned parenthood near me,' Google served four ads from crisis pregnancy centers that were missing the label that they do not provide abortions. When the high-income user based in Miami searched 'Planned Parenthood Miami,' Google served crisis pregnancy center ads that read, 'No Cost Abortion Info' and 'Free Pregnancy Consultation,' with no label.

Tuesday's report follows an earlier TTP investigation that found that Google is still effectively directing women seeking abortions to anti-abortion centers that masquerade as legit healthcare clinics.

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

Another investigation by ProPublica found at least nine online pharmacies that sell abortion pills share information with Google and other third parties, such as search history and geolocation, that can be used to identify the websites' users. ®

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