Pro-Choice Platforms and the Ideological Splinternet
Using new technology to create the world we want
Look At All This Darkness We’ve Found
We’re seeing, after decades of threats both real and idle, the dissolution of Roe vs. Wade and the ideological splintering of abortion interests in the United States.
On Monday, May 2nd, a draft of a Supreme Court judicial decision, taking up the question of abortion rights and their constitutionality, was leaked to and published by Politico. Naturally, after these same decades filled with Federalist Society threats and court-stacking, the time had come for a long-simmering conservative revenge on modernity and a full-throated paean to the Way Things Used to Be.
The screed, clearly written by Justice Alito, his hand guided by the ghost of Scalia, attacked other hallmarks of modern secular society including gay marriage and birth control. It was nothing short of a howl from a distant age back to reap what the Sexual Revolution had sewn by the side that didn’t believe in it. At the time of this writing, red-faced oligarchical representatives insist that this is but a leaked draft and the final outcome may change. That sober-minded jurisprudence will win out in a nonpartisan court and justice will prevail based entirely on precedent divorced from ideology.
Does anyone still buy that bullshit?
This has been the hobby horse for the arch-conservative movement for literally decades. The idea that they would stumble before home plate is naive; they’ve wanted Roe killed since before they could remember and now, when given the shot, they’re taking it and won’t let it slip through their grasp once more, as it had even during eight years of Reagan (12 if you count is VP-turned-president HW) and another bumbling eight years of Bush Junior. Here, at last, was the opportunity to stick the death blow to a right enshrined since 1973.
Simply put: law is now governed by revenge; grievance has replaced precedent; anti-canon is aspirational; and rights can be removed if they conflict with the society we believe we should have, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Don’t think for a second I’m only referring here to Roe, oh no—the Supreme Court has been a distinctly partisan organ since nearly its birth and to argue otherwise is to embrace starry-eyed notions of history that remove the parts we don’t like. From returning freed slaves to forcibly sterilizing the perceived feeble to keeping schools segregated to giving George Bush the election, the court has long since been the same ideologically twisted tree it currently is. This isn’t new, but it is a climax.
For those members of society able to give birth, predominantly women, it harkens back to a visibly darker age to see someone like Matthew Hale, from the 18th century, represented in Alito’s wanderings. It appears almost entirely divorced from reality as we understand it, and makes one wonder why members of society, living in the 21st century, would want to listen to lawmaking reliant on individuals who died before the country was even founded. Of what use is living in a society composed of rules that don’t reflect reality, modernity, or even basic circumstances for a shockingly large percentage of the population?
We have here a metaphor to pursue: the internet. What started off as an open, ideologically driven system of networks has revealed a darker world of splintered factions and extremist ideology that wants to emerge into the sun once more. Safe havens can be found for Nazis, pedophiles, drug dealers, rapists (cough Pick Up Artists cough) and all manner of alt-right troll in secure enclaves and data-free dark continents. Many of these groups disproportionately target women as objects of scorn, hurling insults with delight and laboring over the creation of online societies dedicated to a patriarchal, Julius Evola-sanctioned worldview of super-men and subservient women. The more non-white you are, the likelier you are to find subjugation as the alt-right prescription to everything that ails you.
If one is referring to the trollish misogyny found online, one can also call attention to its proposed antidote: a feminist internet. Although the nomenclature may rub some the wrong way—feminism, after all, means many different things to many different people, including women—the core idea remains one driven by the idea that safe spaces can be made, found, or fully realized online. The internet can have areas singularly devoted to women and their issues free of both trolls and bots, or anyone who doesn’t share their worldview, if it should come to that.
Now, this is clearly something of an ideological splinternet—the internet composed of enclaves, or even layers, devoted to ideology and rigorously holding to those principles to the point of exclusion. We’ve seen splinternets before, just ask China about their firewalled internet, which is suspiciously (sure) pro-CCP, or Russia, which is slowly cutting itself off (and, in its defense, slowly being cut off from) the rest of the world’s internet. A new book from MIT argues the internet we have now is aggressively pro-hetero and anti-LGBTQIA+ because it was designed and created at a time when such values were the norm, and like large data sets for machine learning, the things we build take on our biases if left unchecked.
And so, too, is the internet male-focused, dominated, and lacking in many spaces for women. Many proposed spaces for women lack VC funding because they assume there isn’t a market for it. Maybe there isn’t, I can’t speak to Silicon Valley’s goals at this moment. Maybe the ROI for proposed feminist platforms like Herd is nonexistent. Perhaps the time is now to oversee the creation of more mission-driven VC firms and Just Capital, as we’ve seen mission-driven banks proliferate around the world, driven entirely by ideological purity and a circular economy based on rewarding ethical, triple-bottom-line investments.
Maybe such ethical VC funding can create more feminist platforms not only dedicated to safe spaces for women, but funding networks devoted to securing data and protecting them from ideological cranks on the opposite side of the spectrum. We’re leaving the pure tech and platform world and entering the real world, or meatspace, if you’re so inclined. Even notwithstanding VC funding, perhaps it’s time to think bigger with our data aspirations and see how we can have such a splintered enclave in this world.
Semi-Toxic Constant Repeats
Abortion will soon be illegal in many states in the country, predominantly the usual suspects of the south and places in the Midwest (including my own state of Nebraska). If they take the house and senate back in November 2022, the Republicans might well pass legislation effectively criminalizing abortion at the federal level entirely. We’re going back to a pre-Roe time, when abortion was for the connected and wealthy who could afford both the travel and the procedure; those of lesser economic standing or systemically disadvantaged racial status will likely be forced, in many places, to carry to term children they don’t want, can’t afford, or who are the product of rape. Many will die.
We’ve seen this movie play out on repeat, but it seems the requisite time to remember has passed and now we have to live it once more to remember what a horrible experience it is, learning from our elders be damned.
There is, however, a crucial difference between now and the last time abortion was illegal in any state: the state security and surveillance apparatus has grown exponentially. We’re not simply talking about the old gossip chains or playing phone tag with nosy neighbors anymore—now we have the ability to hoard an untold wealth of data about the actions of movements of individuals across space, place, and time. A world of constant tracking, counting the fall of every sparrow.
A Target store, based on your shopping history and browsing profile, can know you’re pregnant before any of your family members do; anti-abortion groups can geofence and target propaganda ads to women in and around Planned Parenthood locations; police and law enforcement can get access to your search history and see what you’ve been looking up, and use the wealth of online footprints you’ve left to piece together your mental state, your intentions, and your actions. ISPs and cell services can hand over server logs and call data related to you—without a warrant at all, in the case of ISPs; fitness devices, phone apps, and other digital services can be used to trace your whereabouts and place you at the scene with shocking precision; your movements, your feelings, your clicks, your actions, and your mind can be sold in batches, repackaged, tracked and scanned, and used by law enforcement for whatever purpose the state has deemed necessary.
These tactics will almost certainly be used on women seeking abortions.
If in a likely scenario the country is half abortion-providing and half not, we’re left with the same uncertain patchwork of legalities and possibilities that now plagues the marijuana frontier. The difference, of course, is marijuana is mostly a misdemeanor in a great many states where it’s still criminalized. Once Roe is overturned, abortion can be turned into any level of crime the state deems fit, or even miscarriages that whatever kangaroo court overhears it deems suspicious. If history is a guide, they’ll likely consider it voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or possibly homicide.
The majority of abortions are now done safely at home with various pills like misoprostol, methotrexate, and mifepristone. Telemedicine, prized for its convenience and privacy, offers a way for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies—but this could all end. Telemedicine could be an interstate felony if related to abortion care, and doctors could risk their practice and their license if they provide to someone in a state that doesn’t allow abortions, a nightmare web of criminal Zoom calls. Even now, many interstate abortifacient providers are based in locations—like Aid Access in Austria—that aren’t subject to US regulation, and their pill deliveries can be hidden to avoid a politicized and Republican-powered FDA, if necessary.
There will be an incredible market for pro-life states to honeypot and ensnare women who leave their states for abortion in pro-choice states; those same searches in Google can now be used to precisely locate where, when, and how the abortion was procured. Texas and its snitch law, which was at the forefront of this mess, attempted to criminalize anyone even helping the women of the state leave to get an abortion. They stated on numerous occasions, as well as in the law itself, that the goal was to ensnare as many individuals in the pro-choice chain as they possibly could.
The same will be true for the ideologically pure conservative states that seek to keep abortion classified as a major crime, the better, in their minds, to deter women (or harlots, as legislators will likely classify them in their bills) from pursuing it.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this begins to sound a bit like the pre-Civil War era makeup of the states, with the deep south a solitary quagmire and the north enlightened but disinterested. We can only speculate about the crimes for a runaway woman, leaving Georgia to venture to New York, needing an abortion. Her digital footprint is tracked the entire way; her IP addresses and Facebook posts and texts and search history is all gettable by Smokey, who can demand her extradition from the state if she stays, her imprisonment if she returns.
It’s unfortunate that we’ll have to relive the Jane Collective that proliferated before Roe. This was an underground network of Chicago advocates and caregivers who helped women find safe passage and harbor for an abortion. The Jane network was known for its flyers and pamphlets, promising aid. Now, of course, we have a far more robust digital infrastructure to connect women and abortion providers across the entire country—at our own peril.
Digital footprints are far more trackable than the original underground Jane network. There is far more to contend with. Instagram and Facebook posts, or tweets and texts, can be used to prove your whereabouts and suss out the passage you took to find medical care in another abortion-providing state. Digital tracking can quickly and efficiently find and shutdown the entire network and subpoena phones. Programs like Cellebrite, used by many law enforcement agencies around the country, can use filters, keywords, and terms to search phones and other captured digital devices for terms like abortion, or related words like misoprostol and methotrexate.
Of course, there are a lot of redundancies in such search terms, as Casey Anthony’s team found out. There is a lot of overlapping data, disparate frames, and the same sad repeating theme over and over again. The more stories we’ll hear of women prosecuted for their abortions in blue states, the more we’ll become numb to it, as we always do. The more the tales are told, the greater our despair. The poison is the dose; we’re subjected to semi-toxic constant repeats until the day the data doesn’t matter.
In short: the country we currently have, the government that currently rules, and the system we presently suffer through is irreparably geared toward a lack of privacy and a constant state of surveillance with an ideological framework. And for abortion, the right wing’s prized target for the last five decades, a state-by-state surveillance apparatus and theocratic punishment system infused with modern technology (funny thing, that) is the framework to deliver the goods. We might well see a system where a digital app like Citizen is empowered to report and snitch on women seeking or even possibly seeking abortion in their state.
Behavioral modification, the dream of all society’s handlers from country wide projects down to the smallest interaction, is the goal. A world of rigidly enforced morality, such as prosecuted abortions, can help, in the minds of these particular watchmakers, to end such vices as premarital sex, single mothers, welfare, drug use, contraception, a lack of prayer in schools, an open and pluralistic society, socialism, and rampant general heathenism. Sex, freedom, and women simply can’t be allowed to flourish lest all kinds of demons run rampant.
If you’ve read Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, you know the ad-targeting and digital tracking of customers is part of a larger theoretical goal of modifying behavior, normal human behavior, to a more desirable social outcome. Turning a non-buyer into a buyer, for instance, or turning a community of users into brand evangelicals ready to spread the Good Word about the unbeatable deals at whatever Google-affiliated store is paid up that month. Small, nearly imperceptible changes in what we see, how we see it, and what we’re given can achieve the dreams of Skinner at last and make a malleable society prone to obedience and easier to steer toward what’s right.
Governments have done the same since time immemorial, not only in subtle ways such as the restraint of laws or the enforcement of punishments, but in literal genetic purges. Remember my snide comment earlier about the history of the Supreme Court and its supreme uselessness as a morality barometer? I was referring, in one of my examples, to Buck v. Bell, a case where the Supreme Court ruled that eugenics was perfectly fine as long as the people being sterilized were obviously not fit for breeding. Eugenics, in state after state in this country, was a social prescription for the evils of the undesirable—just ask California. Society could be controlled, perfected, modified, and better.
Though eugenics faded after its usefulness was disproven, the dream, this same toxic repeat, is played again. We can enforce a Comstock Law-era morality by surveillance, data collection, blackmail, spying, and the rigid pursuit of those who don’t conform to the laws as made (fight me) by the Supreme Court. Small, imperceptible changes, the same way ads are served to us online, cookies track us, etc., can produce more desirable outcomes and save us from the lurching wretch of modernity that threatens to make us reckon with the past in a realistic, rather than moralistic, way.
All we must do is acquiesce.
Erring Sisters, Go in Peace
It behooves me to mention a few ways to upend this framework.
I hope you remember the philosophical issue I raised related to the ideological splinternet from before. This isn’t a mere theoretic idea, but a concrete reality that can help free the meatspace from surveillance capitalism and a top-down enforced Leave it to Beaver society. A feminist internet space, or at least one devoted to the principles of an open society with open medical access including abortion, can be created and divorced from the internet of old. It will take work and effort, but it can be done.
Rather than rely on centralized platform monoliths like Facebook or Twitter, it’s possible to create decentralized, pro-choice social media spaces that are driven by a network of providers, helpers, handlers, and fellow travelers. A decentralized pro-choice social media platform, possibly built on blockchain principles or on federated servers (think Mastodon) can help ensure a stable network of resources, truth, and education. Of course, it’s still possible for anti-choice trolls to hard fork any decentralized platform, like Gab did from Mastodon, to the dismay and anger of the original creator.
Facebook, as well as every social media platform ever now, struggles with a constant flow of mis and disinformation. Ideological warfare plays out in ads, posts, and general propaganda outlets. Recall the anti-abortion groups paying for ads, almost entirely composed of misinformation, to follow women who are geofenced as near Planned Parenthood or having searches related to abortion. These bits of propaganda are meant to influence the woman’s decision and maybe talk her out of it; at the least, it should confuse her enough to look for more information online, which will naturally take her to a related anti-abortion site. Behavioral modification at its finest.
Law enforcement agencies frequently use sites called honeypots, or copied spoofs of criminal websites, to track and snare disreputables and catch more criminals in their web. It is highly likely anti-abortion and law enforcement agencies will do the same with abortion provider or resource sites, mimicking their presentation to capture as much data as possible from as many women as possible. There could likely be a whole chain of Potemkin Village nonsense sites dedicated entirely to convincing women that A) The site is clean and real, give me your info and I pinky swear I’ll use it for good, or B) Here are a bunch of pro-life propaganda blogs dedicated to misinforming you as much as possible—and also give me your info, I’ll use it for good, pinky swear, etc.
But for those pro-choice provider sites that are legitimate, the Texas law has shown that legal consequences might follow; we don’t know the full extent of interstate complaints that will be fielded for digital resources such as this, or the liability for providers helping out of state women with their abortions. All we can be sure of is that they’re trying, they’ll keep trying, and we have every reason to fear they’ll be more successful than not at this, no matter how many SQL injection, Shrek porn dumps, or spam attacks are auto-filled into their snitching database. At minimum, the mere threat of criminal charges and litigation can either force pro-choices to close down or go out of business and turn tail. Valuable resources and educational hubs in the digital Jane network can be shut down with a wave of a court order, the knowledge and work wiped away in minutes, or worse, its server logs and any collected user data forcibly ascertained by the Elliot Nesses two states over.
A decentralized, server-based instantiated pro-choice social network can run on independent, federated servers; there is no central hub, there is no single resource to destroy. These networks exist at all times, distributed around the world and able to be found and revived at leisure. Users are encouraged to use VPNs and proxy servers to throw watchers off the trail and hide those tracks. A dark continent of decentralized, splinternetted pro-choice Jane spaces can survive on the backs of federated servers. If a 51% attack from pro-life trolls threatens the sanctity of the site, a hard fork can create a new instance and the resource can continue unabated for those who need it. The open-source code can be modified and reused as needed to create soft forks as well around the world, specifically versions more applicable to sister states also struggling under the weight of conservatism’s pushback, such as Poland.
Of course, a reliance on decentralized and alternate social networks is only effective if there is a freeze on state-compliant social networks like Facebook, who stand to make quite a bit of money from anti-abortion messaging on their platform. What would be needed, of course, is nothing less than data and digital secession.
It’s been made clear the state apparatus and its enforcement agencies do not value women’s bodily autonomy, and that the pursuit of the perfect theocratic society depends on forced compliance by any and all means at their disposal, especially including digital. The United States long ago abandoned all but the pretext of being a representative democracy or a republic; we now have a representational oligarchic gerontocracy, where the oldest and most well-connected members of society are continuously reelected to their positions by virtue how much money they take from corporations that see in them the fulfillment of their personal interests. Voting is meant to keep us quiet while they sell books, land parachute deals as lobbyists and television personalities, enact further disenfranchisement, and generally worry less about the things that ail us. Not a bad gig, if you can get it.
These same oligarchic representatives who repeatedly asked Facebook in 2018 how they make money are, shockingly, not equipped to take on Big Tech in a meaningful way and enforce privacy and data ownership. These same politicians who will remove the rights of bodily autonomy are not genuinely interested in reforms to centralized social media platforms that would make it easier for users to take their data and quit. Interoperability is a buzzword to the technocracy and a minor irritant to politicians who almost certainly never login to their own Twitter accounts.
Social media platforms as they currently exist can also be subjected to the laws of FOSTA/SESTA, which remove Section 230 immunity and can have posts, ads, and tweets removed forcibly and PayPal accounts deactivated. ISPs and current platforms are keen to avoid prosecution and thus bend to government pressure frequently. Some activists claim outlets like Facebook and YouTube have already censored pro-choice or abortion-providing posts under various pretexts from drug use to criminality.
Similarly, a movement has sprung up (some might say BURSTED) for the right to do business with corporations that reflect our interests and our values. We want to reward those who help the planet, or stand up for gay or trans rights (like Disney, but on time), and divest from those who seek to make profit at the expense of our values. BDS is normally used in relation to Israel, but its application can be used for corporations as well, many of which in this country have more wealth than the GDP of Israel itself.
An ideological splinternet or pro-choice space might enable a massive interactive content hub (or directory with accompanying information) that shows which companies align with our values, and those that don’t. Often are the times companies have preached one thing but dumped massive wheelbarrows full of cash on senile racists who will push through a tax cut benefitting them specifically. Companies could post a black square on social media all they want, but it doesn’t mean anything if they didn’t live up to their financial pledges…and they didn’t. If we want to starve the engine running our malefactors, a digital system allowing us to easily know when to divest from companies and economically secede from ideological corporate overlords is a great way to start. If we want meaningful change, we have to hit the wallets of those institutions politicians actually care about, i.e. the people who buy their second homes, i.e. Walmart. A list of corporate stooges funding anti-abortion measures is a great place to start. If you keep supporting anti-choice causes, Ted Cruz, we’re not going to pay for you to go to Cancun when it gets cold.
Of course, we can also imagine social media in another way, that of the popup network, an idea proposed in an academic paper. Rather than static sites and concrete social networks, it might be possible to have a series of social networks built on a wireless mesh network, such as those used in disaster areas and after hurricanes. Social media might be a more ephemeral thing; though our connections last for years, our interactions last for minutes. Maybe social media networks, the effective ones of the future, will be the same, rapidly inflationary and rapidly deflationary, situational rather than platform centric. You enter into an area with your digital device and you’re instantly connected to another social network—but it only exists with the right amount of people; scatter, and it’s gone, untraceable by any, an idea as a platform.
Such popup networks could enable a Jane underground that is more untraceable and locational, much like Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomic Zone (TAZ) concept, where social disruption occurs digitally and via networks and is dispersed before the law can show up and counter it. Agility, mobility, and flexibility are the name of the game. Customized router firmware, an API on the router, and a distributed model of trust (called vouching) could enable the pop-up network and its TAZ effects.
Consequently, the best way to hide tracks related to abortion access will be a total digital secession from platforms that no longer represent your interests. Go dark; claim, delete, or use extensions and apps to poison your data and make it useless to trackers and advertisers who could compromise you; work with others to develop competing platforms that serve your interests and the mission. Avoid all social media if possible, and rely on an old school sneakernet of flash drives and hand-shared files to share resources if needed, along with phone calls and secure messaging apps like Signal (WhatsApp will totally sell out your data to its corporate overlord Facebook for a song).
Forming data cooperatives might be another way to hoard data and make it impossible to correctly find geographic lines, trails, and data points that can be harvested or used against individuals. Tightly controlled data cooperatives might also mean companies like SafeGraph can’t collect useful location data on Planned Parenthood and sell a week’s worth for $160. These same data sovereignty collectives can also keep employers from ratting out medical or insurance data to the states that want it for their own uses. We need more personal data sovereignty than we have now, or have ever had; we need to lock up and ensure, for the first time, we actually own what we make online.
Money talks, first and foremost. These social networks will rely on mission-driven VC funding and donations from users and allies. It’s possible, for the purposes of anonymity and avoiding G-men, to use crypto or specially created tokens on secure, hidden, permissioned blockchains to pay for abortions and services across state lines. Welfare recipients can have their purchasing data tracked by the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards which are provided for basic necessities; these purchases can be pieced together and used to form a picture of intent and situation, necessitating possible modes of alt-finance. Financing can be doled out from ICOs and socially conscious tokens that encourage a sharing economy and open-source creativity for the digital maintenance work. Care should be taken to poison any data and avoid correlative effects that can create an emergent financial data network for the captor states to track and use against offenders.
It obviously isn’t the first desirable choice to create an alt-net or a walled-garden splinternet devoted to this, but there is little other choice given the strict digital border walls that will likely be erected around anti-choice states, carefully tracking anyone who dares try to leave under suspicious circumstances. If we’re to preserve the bodily autonomy we so value, it’ll be equally essential to preserve the rights and digital autonomy that will enable it. If theocratic states are (ironically) hell-bent on using modern technology to drag society back to the dark ages, our uses of technology should rapidly evolve to evade such measures.
Hostile states might well create their own genetic blockchain system of registered women/offenders on a legalized distributed ledger system, more like a permanent scarlet letter than a transaction. Governments around the world have already shown a devoted interest to shared genetic databases of citizens—there’s no reason they wouldn’t use them for exactly this purpose. When all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail, and the problem will likely proliferate and being driven underground to the point their desperation forces them to act on such data like a literal net. They might, as they’ve done before with Femm, create women’s health-focused apps that are little more than anti-choice forgeries, an ideological trickery meant to harvest, control, and monitor data under the guise of health. They’ll sell you and it off in a second.
If we’re lucky, the smart use of digital tools can turn this era into Prohibition, a decade of underground evasion and eventual collapse of a failed idea, rather than centuries of persecution as the movement is wont to pursue.