Under a recently passed Texas law, private citizens can sue anyone involved in helping a person receive an abortion in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy. In response, an anti-abortion group called Texas Right to Life set up a website designed to collect anonymous information about any alleged infractions. Or at least, it tried to. So far, no company has been willing host it.
The fate of prolifewhistleblower.com remains uncertain, and its absence from the internet does not negate the Texas law or its impacts. But in recent years, internet infrastructure giants have begun to draw blurry lines around who they’re willing to have as customers, a sometimes murky process exemplified by the travails of far-right social media network Parler. In contrast, prolifewhistleblower.com offers a rare example of consensus about what constitutes acceptable behavior online.
The site did make a brief appearance on the internet, launching last Wednesday, but had an ignominious start. First, a small army of TikTok and Reddit users flooded the reporting mechanism with false claims in an attempt to overwhelm the system. By Saturday, the web hosting service GoDaddy had terminated its relationship with the site for violating the company’s terms of service, which explicitly forbid collecting identifying information about third parties without their prior consent.
“The big thing is that in some cases services should warn the user and give them a chance to cure,” says Whitney Merrill, a privacy and data protection lawyer and former Federal Trade Commission attorney. “Like how GoDaddy warned the site owner that they were doing something in violation of the terms. That’s not a legal requirement, just a good business practice in my mind.”
Texas Right to Life then registered the site with the notorious service provider Epik, which has been known to offer safe haven to contentious platforms like Parler and Gab. But Epik never offered to host prolifewhistleblower.com content, only a way to register the site’s domain. On Saturday evening, prolifewhistleblower.com simply started redirecting to the Texas Right to Life homepage rather than reviving its previous incarnation as a tip submission system.
“We contacted the owner of the domain, who agreed to disable the collection of user submissions on this domain,” Epik said in a statement on Saturday. In other words, Epik will act as prolifewhistleblower.com’s registrar so long as it’s only redirecting to the group’s main site. If it resumes collecting third-party data, Epik will pull its registration.
Texas Right to Life spokesperson Kim Schwartz offers a different assessment of the situation. “Prolifewhistleblower.com is currently forwarding to TexasRightToLife.com because we’re establishing extra security protocols to protect our users before we put it back up,” she said in a statement Monday evening. She added that the site has lined up a new host, but is not saying which hosting company “for security reasons.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, though, the URL continued to redirect to the Texas Right to Life homepage. And given that the site’s entire premise is gathering information about people who may have helped facilitate an abortion in Texas—an inherent violation of basic third-party data collection protections—it seems unlikely to find a way to come into compliance.
The situation evokes past conflicts in which internet infrastructure providers have withdrawn hosting, DDoS protection, or other support for extremist sites, causing them to go offline permanently or until they can find new providers. Cloudflare, for example, has grappled with decisions about how to remain neutral and protect speech rights while taking action in extreme cases. The company dropped support for white supremacist and otherwise controversial platforms like the Daily Stormer in 2017 and 8chan in 2019.