Online privacy meets abortion debate

13 privacy

The attorney general of Massachusetts has taken the abstraction of online privacy and brought it into  crystal clear focus by barring a Boston advertising agency from targeting anti-abortion ads at the cellphones of women the moment they arrive at reproductive health facilities.

From a story in the Boston Globe:

“You Have Choices,” one message said. Others offered “Pregnancy Help,’’ and assured recipients, “You’re Not Alone,” according to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who on Tuesday announced a legal action that alleged the ads illegally used consumer health data.

A settlement reached with Healey’s office preemptively bars the company that devised the marketing campaign, Boston-based Copley Advertising, from sending such messages. It says the company cannot use location data about people who are near a Massachusetts health care facility to send them advertisements based on a medical condition.

It’s not clear how Copley is able obtain the information necessary to deliver ads with such pinpoint accuracy – known as “geofencing” – but few would argue that it doesn’t break the creepiness meter. Location-based apps are a leading suspect of being the source. Nonetheless, Healey’s action has sparked a debate about whether banning such advertising violates the First Amendment rights of would-be advertisers, in this case opponents of a women’s right to choose an abortion. I am neither a lawyer nor convinced.

It also highlights the damage done recently by Republicans in Congress and President Trump in rolling back Obama-era protections fashioned by the FCC that would have, once implemented, at least prevented ISPs from being the purveyors of the personal information necessary to conduct this type of invasive advertising.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai contends that he opposed those protections last year – and supported their repeal recently -- because they represented the government “picking winners and losers” in that they applied to carriers and ISPs, and not the likes of Facebook and Amazon. Pai says the FCC “will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework.”

The fact that the Massachusetts case involves reproductive rights -- among the most controversial issues of our day -- may tend to obscure the magnitude of the privacy invasion here.

Everyone should be able to imagine a situation where they would feel violated by such targeting. I have a medical procedure scheduled for next Wednesday at a Boston hospital. I don’t care what kind of related goods or services you’re selling, you’re not welcome to pitch them to me while I’m there.

That shouldn’t be the least bit controversial.  

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