Siri Scandal

12.03.11

Are Pro-Life Groups Behind Apple Siri's Abortion Problem?

Apple’s virtual assistant Siri was accused of being pro-life after a blogger discovered it wouldn’t direct her to abortion services. Joyce Tang on an even more nefarious explanation.

Is Apple’s new "virtual assistant" software pro-life?

It might be a sign that we’re taking our smartphones too seriously when we start to suspect them of harboring political motives, but that was the case last week when one blogger stumbled upon a strange quirk that seemed to suggest the software, called Siri, fell on the side of those who believe that life begins at conception. iPhone users asking Siri about nearby abortion services, emergency contraception, and birth control were met with curious ignorance and deflection. Some were directed to pro-life pregnancy centers, while one woman standing right outside a Planned Parenthood was told by Siri that there were no abortion services nearby.

While it’s unsurprising that voice-recognition software can’t accurately decipher every single one of our needs, Siri seemed to stonewall consistently on reproductive-health services in particular. And for those who might write off Siri as simply demure in general, she seems to have no trouble weighing in on other touchy subjects, like Viagra, escorts, and marijuana.

Once the rumors starting swirling, many began to accuse Apple of a latent pro-life agenda. But the truth may have more to do with pro-life activists manipulating the Internet itself.

For those who might write off Siri as simply demure in general, she seems to have no trouble weighing in on other touchy subjects, like Viagra, escorts, and marijuana.

Online listings for reproductive health services often lead women astray. The Yellow Pages website sometimes directs those seeking abortion services to crisis pregnancy centers, which don’t provide abortion services at all but rather are places where women are often subjected to and manipulated by pro-life propaganda. You can be similarly misdirected on SuperPages.com, another online directory.

Why does this happen? What the Siri issue has brought to the surface, says Ted Miller of NARAL Pro-Choice America, are the dubious advertising tactics of crisis pregnancy centers, which claim to provide abortion services and purposely list themselves under that category instead of “abortion alternatives.” That has helped the pro-life message seep into presumably apolitical resources like Google, and could likely be the reason Siri inadvertently seems pro-life, too.

Crisis pregnancy centers, well-funded by the religious right, outnumber legitimate abortion providers five to one. Their pervasiveness gives them another boost in bubbling to the top of search-engine results, and their cyberpresence is only growing. Pro-life pay-per-click advertising services, such as Heroic Media, now exist to bid on abortion-related search terms to help connect men and women “with life-affirming information and resources.” They estimate that there are 6 million abortion-related searches a month. The company was also behind the controversial billboards that began to pop up in cities around the U.S. last year, with the tagline “The Most Dangerous Place for an African American Is in the Womb.”

Apple has attributed Siri’s problems with providing information on women’s reproductive services to a glitch. But others have pointed out that the software culls from user-generated resources such as Yelp and Bing Answers, and search engines such as Yahoo and Google, which offer pay-for-click advertising.

Amid legislation and education efforts, advocacy groups like NARAL have yet to tackle the problem on the scale of search-engine giants like Google, but “this is a priority for us,” Miller said. Earlier this year NARAL identified 70 crisis pregnancy centers advertising under “abortion services” on YellowPages.com and SuperPages.com and petitioned successfully to have them relisted under “abortion alternatives.” The two websites have 125 million monthly searches and 30 million unique visitors per month, respectively.

That Apple, a company whose employees were once named the second-most liberal in the U.S., was suspected of a right-wing agenda is comical. But that Siri’s bizarre unfamiliarity with women’s reproductive-health services could be a result of pro-life groups manipulating the Internet might not be as much of a stretch. Unfortunately, we may never know. Companies like Apple and Google are notoriously unforthcoming about their products (Google’s search algorithm is a much-coveted industry secret), and phone calls to both companies by The Daily Beast were unreturned.

At the very least, Apple’s high profile and last week’s fracas may spotlight the fact that the pro-life movement is not only on the Internet, but sometimes manipulating it, too—something to keep in mind when you tap out your next Google search.