Firm settles Massachusetts probe over anti-abortion ads sent to phones

BOSTON (Reuters) - A Massachusetts advertising agency has agreed not to use location technology to target women entering clinics that offer abortion with smartphone ads with messages including “You Have Choices,” state officials said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey speaks during news conference in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

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

Healey said Copley used the technology in five cities outside the state, and while it had not carried out such advertising campaigns near Massachusetts clinics, it has the ability to do so.

The Boston-based firm, which will pay no financial penalty, agreed not to use the technology at or near Massachusetts healthcare facilities to infer the health status, medical condition or treatment of any person.

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

In a statement, Copley Chief Executive Officer John Flynn said Healey’s office had “singled out” the company. Copley broke no laws, he said, but settled so it could focus on its clients.

“Their right to free speech should not be marginalized because government officials do not agree with the message of their advertisement,” he said.

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

The settlement spotlighted the privacy issues inherent in geofencing, which allows marketers to target users visiting specific spots with tailor-made advertising.

According to court papers, a Christian adoption agency and a California-based network of crisis pregnancy centers hired Copley in 2015 to send ads to “abortion-minded 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 St. Louis, court papers said.

Flynn said Copley could set up virtual fences around Planned Parenthood clinics, hospitals and doctors’ offices that perform abortions, court papers said.

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

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

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