Planned Parenthood Urges FTC To Issue Online Privacy Rules

Planned Parenthood is calling for the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit tech companies from disclosing a broad array of information related to abortion, including people's online searches for health care services and visits to websites of providers.

“Planned Parenthood believes that all data related to accessing health care must be kept confidential, including internet searches for providers or services; visits to educational websites discussing health concerns; searches for directions using a search engine, website, or smartphone; actual location data; and phone calls, texts, or emails to a provider office,” the organization writes in comments filed this week.

The group says the FTC should “write tailored regulations to protect consumers’ sensitive data from the potentially dangerous consequences of commercial surveillance and lax data security.”

Planned Parenthood also says companies should have to quickly shed health-related data.



"The retention of location data in general should be both time-bound and tied to furthering the ability of the consumer to obtain a service the consumer has expressly sought," the group writes. "For example, search terms and results regarding abortion services should be retained only as long as necessary to assist the consumer in finding the websites they are seeking."

The organization is among hundreds of commenters responding to the FTC's request for input regarding “commercial surveillance” -- meaning online tracking for ad purposes.

Privacy advocates have long urged the FTC to curb companies' collection and use of online data, but those requests took on new urgency after the Supreme Court ruled in June that states can outlaw abortion.

Soon after the Supreme Court's decision came out, President Joe Biden said in an executive order that encouraged FTC Chair Lina Khan to consider actions “to protect consumers’ privacy when seeking information about and provision of reproductive healthcare services.”

Federal lawmakers are also seeking to require online companies to protect the privacy of health related information.

In June, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) called for a national privacy law protecting people's online activity, and urged technology companies to “take immediate steps to limit the collection and retention of customer data so that they don’t become tools of persecution.”

That same month, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) introduced the “Health and Location Data Protection Act,” which would prohibit data brokers from sharing information about people's health or location. That bill, however, wouldn't prohibit search engine operators, broadband providers or others from amassing data that could be obtained by prosecutors in states that outlaw abortion.

Planned Parenthood specifically referred to the Supreme Court decision in its comments, writing that people's online searches, emails, texts, location history and other data “may end up being used in legal cases against patients and providers.”

The FTC is accepting comments on proposed privacy rules through November 21.

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