Walmart investors vote down bid to study consumers' data privacy and reproductive rights

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas—Walmart investors voted Wednesday to reject a push from some company shareholders to conduct an independent study on consumers' data privacy and reproductive rights.

The proposal requested that the company investigate known and potential risks associated with filling information requests from law enforcement and other agencies that could criminalize patients seeking abortions. It received 5.2% of shares that were voted, according to a release from the company, a required a majority of total voting shares to be affirmative to pass.

The proposal, which is detailed in Walmart's annual proxy filing, noted that the retailer "is susceptible to abortion-related law enforcement requests that may create significant reputational, financial and legal risks" as it has access to significant amounts of data on its customers including health, geolocation, internet activity and purchases.

"Law enforcement can easily request access to digital reproductive health footprints that can lead to criminal or civil charges," Julie Kalish, an investor who filed the proposal, said during the meeting.

She said that a prominent example of this at work was a 2022 case in which Meta, the parent company of Facebook, satisfied a warrant for messages between a mother and her teenage daughter, which led to felony charges for an illegal abortion.

Law enforcement frequently relies on digital consumer data. In the proxy filing, Kalish noted that Alphabet and Meta collectively received about 110,000 requests in the second half of 2021. Each complied with about 80% of those requests. 

Walmart's board recommended against approving the proposal in its proxy filing, saying that the company "has gone beyond what the law requires in ensuring that we handle customer and patient data in an ethical and transparent manner."

The board said that the retailer is transparent with customers through privacy notices about how their data are used, and the company uses a dedicated expert team to field regulatory and law enforcement requests for customer information.

"This team has developed and implemented procedures to review these requests and determine the manner and timing of responses to lawful information requests," the board said in the filing. "We believe that this team’s valuable time and expertise would be better used on upholding and enhancing its robust processes and responding to requests than in preparing the requested report."

Similar proposals were rejected by investors in other major corporations including American Express and Coca-Cola, as Bloomberg reported.

The retail giant's shareholders weighed nine measures in total Wednesday morning at a business meeting, all of which were voted down. Other topics included a study on the company's workplace safety measures amid a national conversation about gun violence.

A full vote count was not available as of the time of publication, though Walmart said that it would be released in a forthcoming Securities and Exchange Commission filing.