House Democrats Request Meta Data Privacy Briefing Following Nebraska Abortion Case

On August 31, 2022, the Democrats part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Meta CEO, outlining their concerns about the company’s data-sharing policy and asking for clarity on the dissemination of private messages to law authorities. 

The letter comes as a mother and her daughter discussions relating to an illegal abortion on Meta platforms had been obtained by law enforcement. In Nebraska, law enforcement had conducted an investigation into Jessica Burgess and her 18-year old daughter, Celeste, over an alleged illegal abortion. Following the United States’ decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Nebraska had prohibited abortions after more than 20 weeks of fetilization. 

After discovering that a 17-year-old had suddenly given birth to a stillborn child, the Nebraska authorities opened an investigation. According to a Deseret News article, the local law enforcement issued a warrant to Meta requesting access to the mother and daughter’s online activity and communications. Following the investigation, Celeste Burgess was charged with 3 felony counts: performing an illegal abortion, performing the abortion without a licensed doctor, and then concealing a dead human body, along with two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting. Her mother, Jessica, was charged with two felony counts: performing an illegal abortion after 20 weeks and performing the abortion as a non-licensed doctor. A 22-year-old man was also charged with attempting to conceal the death of another person. 

In reaction to the media’s coverage of the case, Meta released a statement saying that the reports contained factual mistakes. Meta contended that the reporting about the role of Meta in the criminal case is wrong. “We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The warrants did not mention abortion at all,” stated Meta. “Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted.”

Following the incident, house democrats are requesting responses from Meta regarding its privacy policies involving sensitive user data and how the technology company guarantees its protection. Particularly given the likelihood that companies will receive further requests of information related to illegal abortions from law enforcement.