BOSTON (AP) — A settlement with a digital advertising company bars the firm from using a technology called geofencing to direct anti-abortion messages toward women entering reproductive health facilities in Massachusetts, the state attorney general said Tuesday.
The agreement was reached after Attorney General Maura Healey investigated whether Copley Advertising or John Flynn, a Brookline man identified as the firm’s manager and sole employee, was violating the state’s consumer protection laws. Copley denied any wrongdoing.
Geofencing allows ads to be directed to the mobile devices of certain people when they enter a designated location. The technology also allows those devices to be tagged so the messages can continue to be sent to the user through apps or web browsers for up to 30 days after they leave the location.
Consumers often don’t realize when they install an app that they are allowing it to disclose information about their location that can then be used by advertisers.
According to the settlement, Copley contracted in 2015 with Bethany Christian Services, a pregnancy counseling and adoption agency, and RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy services, to send targeted ads to the mobile devices of “abortion-minded women” entering reproductive health facilities and methadone clinics in New York City; Pittsburgh; St. Louis; Richmond, Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio. The ads would include links to services that encourage alternatives to abortion.
“While geofencing 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, a Democrat. “Consumers are entitled to privacy in their medical decisions and conditions.”
The agreement, officially known as an assurance of discontinuance, applies only to Massachusetts and covers consumers entering or leaving any kind of health care facility, not just those providing abortion services.
Flynn said that he hadn’t provided geofencing services at any women’s health clinics in Massachusetts but that he had the ability to tag all mobile devices entering or leaving all Planned Parenthood Clinics in the U.S.
In a statement, Flynn said the company was singled out by Healey’s office for a challenge to what he considered free speech.
“Although we have not violated any laws, we made an agreement with the AG’s office so we can devote our time and resources to working for our clients,” Flynn said. “Their right to free speech should not be marginalized because government officials do not agree with the message of their advertisement.”
The attorney general’s office said it was not aware of any similar legal actions brought in other states.
This story has been corrected to show that ads linked to services encouraged alternatives to abortion, not pregnancy.
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