Proposed Texas bill could block access to abortion websites

The almost non-existent abortion rights of Texans may be further diminished as a new proposed bill(Opens in a new tab) by Republican legislators in the state seeks to ban access to websites that are “intended to assist or facilitate efforts to obtain an elective abortion or an abortion-inducing drug.” Since the ban on abortion in the state in 2022 following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, Texas Republicans are now targeting internet service providers in the proposed bill’s attempt to control how the internet is accessed.

HB2690, introduced by Republican State House Representative Steve Toth last week, calls upon ISPs to “make every reasonable and technologically feasible effort to block Internet access” to sites that provide information on how to obtain or access an abortion or abortion-inducing drugs, specifically, mifepristone and misoprostol. Rep. Toth’s bill also explicitly called out six websites: in a new tab), in a new tab), in a new tab), in a new tab), in a new tab), and in a new tab). This also prohibits individuals from creating a website “that assists or facilitates a person’s effort in obtaining an abortion-inducing drug,” according to the bill.

As The New Republic notes(Opens in a new tab), medication abortions, i.e., abortions that can be performed outside of a doctor’s office using pills, represent more than half of all abortions in the United States.

While this bill doesn’t singularly target pregnant women, it does encourage citizens to seek civil action by allowing them to sue ISPs or individuals they believe to be violating the proposed law. This is in line with Texas’s “bounty hunter” approach (Opens in a new tab)to its abortion ban, calling upon citizens to enforce the law(Opens in a new tab).

Broadly, the bill also attempts to expand its scope outside of Texas through purposefully ambiguous language establishing “civil liability for distribution of abortion-inducing drugs.” According to the ordinance, “the law of this state applies to the use of an abortion-inducing drug by a resident of this state, regardless of where the use of the drug occurs.”

ISPs are also financially incentivized to block as many websites and apps as possible by liability shields the bill would create. ISPs would have “absolute and nonwaivable immunity from liability or suit” for any “action taken to comply with the requirements of this subchapter, or to restrict access to or availability of the information or material described,” the bill says. It also provides immunity to ISPs that take proactive measures in blocking broadband access to individuals “who provide or aid or abet elective abortions or who manufacture, mail, distribute, transport, or provide abortion-inducing drugs.”

The proposed bill is a nightmare for free speech activists and supporters of internet statutes such as Section 230 and its kin. And despite a clause claiming it doesn’t apply to First Amendment-protected speech, critics of Rep. Toth’s bill have pointed out on social media that this legislation is trying to abridge free speech. Mashable attempted to speak to Toth’s office for comment but could not reach him or a spokesperson at the time of this writing.

As The Verge points out(Opens in a new tab), proposed legislation such as HB2690 that allows for ISP blocking provisions would run afoul of net neutrality rules. However, under President Biden’s current FCC administration, the agency is currently deadlocked trying to confirm his nominee for commissioner, and thus, can’t reinstate rules that were rolled back during the Trump presidency. Extreme laws like these usually don’t pass, the Verge notes, but they can’t be ignored.

Despite Texas’ draconian laws on abortion, there are already attempts to skirt these potential new rulings on accessible abortion information. Mobile billboards sponsored by the nonprofit (Opens in a new tab)Mayday.Health(Opens in a new tab) are visiting college campuses in 14 states with abortion bans carrying a reminder that abortion pills are still accessible all across the country. The traveling billboards are fitted with QR codes that direct people to resources specific to the state where they are hoping to have pills delivered. Campuses in Austin and Dallas should expect to see the billboard soon in the coming days as March celebrates Women’s History Month.

As the current legal backdrop continues to attack the right to abortion across the country, here is information you can use to help abortion funds and reproductive networks around the nation.

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