Advertiser barred from geo-targeting anti-abortion ads in landmark ruling

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey

A landmark settlement today (April 4) in Massachusetts barred digital outfit Copley Advertising from using geo-fencing technology to target women entering reproductive health facilities with anti-abortion messages.

In Court papers Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey claimed Boston-based Copley Advertising, which uses geo-fencing technology for location-based ads, had "the potential to digitally harass people and interfere with health privacy."

In the legal case, Copley Advertising was accused of using its technology to send anti-abortion messages to the phones of people in the location of family planning clinics on behalf of crisis pregnancy centers, and now it is prevented from doing so in the state.

The use of mobile geo-fencing technology means that Copley can establish a parameter around a given area (in this instance planned parenthood clinics) and tag every user who crosses the boundary with a unique smartphone ID with a view to sending them ads dependent on their location.

In the ad campaign it helped conduct, Copley sent text-based ads such as: “Pregnancy Help”; “You Have Choices”; and “You’re Not Alone” to identified users – or "abortion-minded women" – in Columbus, New York City, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and St. Louis.

While Copley claimed that it has not yet engaged in geo-fencing campaigns near reproductive health clinics in Massachusetts, today's ruling, resolved through an Assurance of Discontinuance, mean it will not do so in the state.

“While geo-fencing can have positive benefits for consumers, it is also a technology that has the potential to digitally harass people and interfere with health privacy,” said Healey.

“Consumers are entitled to privacy in their medical decisions and conditions. This settlement will help ensure that consumers in Massachusetts do not have to worry about being targeted by advertisers when they seek medical care.”

The ads in question included a link to services that encourage alternatives to pregnancy, with the settlement barring Copley from using geo-fencing to target consumers at any health care facility in Massachusetts.

Copley Advertising, LLC (Copley) is a company based in Massachusetts and owned and managed by John F. Flynn of Brookline, who said in a statement that his company had broke no laws, and that Healey's office "singled out" his company which only agreed to settle so it could focus on clients.

- Ronan Shields contributed to this report.

Laurie Fullerton

Laurie Fullerton is a writer based in Boston, MA with a background in business, sports, community, medical and travel writing. She has been a newspaper editor in the Boston-area, a sports writer covering yacht racing and a community reporter. She has been reporting for The Drum since October 2015.

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