A website set up by supporters of the Texas “fetal heartbeat bill” that bans abortion after six weeks – before many even know they’re pregnant – has been forced offline. In fact, it’s been forced offline twice in the past five days – and some experts suspect it’s probably not coming back.
It has been quite a week since the misleadingly named bill, officially known as Senate Bill 8, came into force in Texas. Medical experts and civil liberties groups condemned the law, which effectively bans abortion across the state; even President Joe Biden weighed in, warning that “unconstitutional chaos” would be “unleashe[d]” by the bill.
But online, a different kind of chaos was being unleashed. The website, set up by the deep-pocketed Texas Right To Life group, asked for anonymous “whistleblowers” to report those “aiding and abetting” abortion healthcare access. It was almost immediately bombarded by X-rated memes and lines of code designed to overwhelm the system and crash the site. Protesters submitted Shrek porn, furry porn, goatse (look it up (DO NOT LOOK IT UP)), genre-defining movies, and pretty much anything else they felt like; some even sent in real reports, if “the state of Texas is facilitating abortions by having highways that people use to travel to the procedure” counts as a real report.
Through it all, the website remained up. But then, activists invoked a higher power: the hosting provider.
The tip site was originally hosted by GoDaddy, and they have quite a few ground rules for who they put online. Crucially, they ban sites that “collect or harvest (or permit anyone else to collect or harvest) any User Content … or any non-public or personally identifiable information about another User or any other person or entity without their express prior written consent.”
Unfortunately for Texas Right To Life, “collect[ing] … non-public or personally identifiable information … without their express prior written consent”, or snitching on people, was the entire point of their website. On top of that, an analysis by Gizmodo found that the site was also covertly harvesting the IP addresses of the tipsters themselves, putting the anti-abortion group 0 for 2 when it came to following the rules. GoDaddy booted them from their servers on Friday.
"Last night we informed prolifewhistleblower.com they have violated GoDaddy's terms of service,” the provider told Ars Technica. “[They] have 24 hours to move to a different provider."
By the next day, the group had found a new potential home for their website: Epik, a provider infamous for hosting right-wing extremist groups favored by, among others, the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooter Robert Bowers and Sandy Hook “truther” Alex Jones. If Epik was prepared to host things like that, you might think, then surely an anti-abortion tip site could survive there.
But by Saturday night, Epik had already seen the need to impose limits on the site. The reason was pretty much the same as before: by collecting third-party information without consent, they would be breaching Epik’s terms of service. The group was told to disable the function that let anonymous users submit tips (or Shrek porn) – and then the website disappeared completely, redirecting visitors to the Texas Right To Life main page.
The abortion of the site is only temporary, insists the group’s spokesperson Kimberlyn Schwartz, who told the Washington Post it will “be back up soon to continue collecting anonymous tips” as soon as they work out a solution. But if even Epik has refused to host a website that collects private third-party information, it’s hard to see who would step in to save them.
“For all intents and purposes it is offline,” web infrastructure expert Ronald Guilmette told the Guardian. “They are having technical difficulties. My personal speculation is that they are going to have trouble keeping it online moving forward.”