Company settles investigation in Massachusetts into anti-abortion advertisements sent to phones

BOSTON (Reuters) – A Massachusetts advertising agency has agreed not to use location technology to target women who enter clinics that offer abortions with smartphone ads with messages such as “You have choices.” state officials said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey speaks at a press conference in Boston, Massachusetts, the United States, Jan. 31, 2017. REUTERS / Brian Snyder / File Photo

Maura Healey, Democratic state attorney general, said the settlement with Copley Advertising LLC underscored the potential for using “geofencing” technology to harass people and interfere with their privacy.

Healey said Copley has used the technology in five cities outside of the state, and while she hasn’t run such ad campaigns near clinics in Massachusetts, she has the ability to do so.

The Boston-based company, which will pay no financial penalties, has agreed not to use the technology in or near health facilities in Massachusetts to infer the medical condition, medical condition or treatment of a nobody.

“These regulations will help ensure that consumers in Massachusetts do not have to worry about being targeted by advertisers when seeking medical care,” Healey said in a statement.

In a statement, Copley CEO John Flynn said Healey’s office had “singled out” the company. Copley didn’t break any laws, he said, but managed to be able to focus on his clients.

“Their right to freedom of expression must not be marginalized because government officials do not agree with the message of their advertisement,” he said.

Abortion is one of the most politically controversial issues in the United States. Advocates of abortion rights see them as fundamental for women. Opponents say the procedure is akin to murder.

The regulation highlighted privacy concerns inherent in geofencing, which allows marketers to target users visiting specific locations with tailored advertising.

According to court documents, a Christian adoption agency and a California network of crisis pregnancy centers hired Copley in 2015 to send advertisements to “aborted women” at reproductive health clinics.

To do this, Copley created virtual “fences” around reproductive health centers and methadone clinics in New York City; Pittsburgh; Richmond, Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; and Saint-Louis, according to court papers.

Flynn said Copley could install virtual fences around Planned Parenthood clinics, hospitals and doctors’ offices that perform abortions, court documents show.

When someone entered a designated area, Copley tagged that person’s smartphone or other internet-connected device and sent them the advertisements, Healey said.

Her office said clicking on the ads would take a user to a website with information about alternatives to abortion and access to a live chat with a “pregnancy aid specialist.”

Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Von Ahn

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