Pro-lifers get liberal pushback for geofencing marketing… | WORLD
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A geofencing controversy highlights growing efforts to silence pro-life activism in the digital space

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

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VULNERABLE WOMEN are at risk from “extremists” who exploit technology to track and target them, says Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. Wyden issued that dire warning earlier this year in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). He urged the agency to protect consumers from the “outrageous conduct” of a now-bankrupt data broker that cooperated with one of these so-called radical groups.

The group in question? A pro-life marketing company called the Veritas Society. It used a digital strategy called geofencing to serve life-affirming ads to the cell phones of women who visited abortion facilities. Wyden claims the tracking involved 600 Planned Parenthood centers across 48 states.

Although geofencing is a common digital marketing strategy, pro-lifers leveraging the technology around abortion facilities face increasing pushback from both privacy advocates and pro-abortion lawmakers. They argue the practice violates patients’ rights and could even be used to prosecute women seeking abortions across state lines. But the marketers behind these campaigns say they’re just putting to good use the same tools available to everyone—and that political outrage reveals the growing push to squelch pro-life messaging online.

In the early 2000s, Jon Reames was just getting his start in the marketing world, helping TV and radio stations build their audiences. It was a bracing time in the industry. YouTube was still in its infancy, and a Harvard sophomore had just launched something called “TheFacebook” from his dorm room.

At the same time, a revolutionary type of location-­based advertising called geofencing was taking root, harnessing the recently minted GPS capabilities of smartphones to send targeted ads directly to phone users based on places they’d recently visited.

Geofencing uses the GPS signals most smartphones have running in the background—usually from something like a weather app with location tracking enabled. Advertisers can then draw a virtual “fence” around a specific area to capture the signals that enter it.

Geofencing has been mainstream in the marketing field for at least the last 10 or 15 years, Reames said, and is “very widespread” among companies today. Auto dealers might geofence a competitor’s location and serve ads for their own vehicles to potential car buyers. A restaurant might geofence a nearby mall to entice hungry shoppers.

Seven years ago, Reames left a successful career to start his own company, A Nice Guy Marketing, where he has helped a variety of churches and nonprofits promote their visions using this technology. He said geofencing can be “almost like digital door knocking” Christians can use to raise awareness in their communities.

“Some people don’t want their doors knocked on these days,” Reames said. “But you can reach them on their phones.”

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ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO, a marketer named Nelly Roach launched Choose Life Marketing, a company that aimed to bring the pro-life movement “into the 21st century.” Scott Baker is now the group’s vice president of public affairs. Baker said geofencing is just one tool available to help pro-life marketers follow the trail of digital footprints to help women in need.

“Your local store knows that you’re shopping for a pair of shoes,” Baker said. “And we’re able to understand when a woman is in a situation where she might be faced with an unplanned pregnancy.”

Jacob Barr is another pro-life marketer who uses geofencing technology at his company, iRapture, to help pro-life organizations and churches present their messages through what he calls “wise online marketing.” He said iRapture works with about 130 pregnancy resource centers on a monthly basis.

Barr described two primary ways his company applies geofencing on behalf of pro-life causes. The first is to use it to target places like college campuses, shopping centers, and coffee shops to raise awareness of available pregnancy help resources before women need them.

The second strategy—the one that drew Wyden’s ire—is to reach women inside abortion center waiting rooms or parking lots. The goal in those cases, Barr explained, is to reach a woman on the brink of abortion and encourage her to choose life for her unborn baby. “There’s still a beating heart inside of her,” he said. “And there’s time for her to walk out before having that procedure.”

But a woman’s visit to an abortion center counts as “medically sensitive data,” and tracking it with geofencing has raised some eyebrows both inside and outside the pro-life community. Reames calls it the hottest debate in geofencing because it raises the possibility that companies could use device IDs to uncover “personally identifiable information.”

“You could take those device IDs, and if you knew where to look ... you could match that back to who owns those phones,” Reames said.

The geofencing system Reames uses “truncates everything immediately when it’s captured,” he said. So, he couldn’t discover individual user identities even if he wanted to. But he said not all platforms limit their data collection, and some are “more rogue” than others in deciding what types of marketing c­ampaigns they will permit.

That’s sparked growing calls for government regulation in the field in recent years. Although no federal laws restrict geofencing in the United States, four states—Connecticut, New York, Washington, and Nevada—have passed laws banning the practice around medical facilities, including abortion centers.

Even when states don’t prohibit the strategy, data brokers who gather information for marketers like Reames often restrict these types of applications in their user agreements. And running a campaign like this can open marketers up to some legal liabilities, too.

Just last year, Reames said, someone floated to him the idea of geofencing a nearby Planned Parenthood. But Reames said that’s not an option for him—both because his data provider won’t let him and because of the privacy considerations at play. “I’ve wanted to be able to do that, to message and say, ‘Hey, there’s another solution, we can help,’” Reames said. “But I can’t from a privacy standpoint, because it is a medically sensitive category.”

FOLLOWING THE REVERSAL of Roe v. Wade, privacy concerns took center stage for some pro-abortion lawmakers who claimed geofencing might be used to incriminate women seeking the procedure out-of-state. “If a data broker could track Americans’ cell phones to help extremists target misinformation to people at hundreds of Planned Parenthood locations across the United States, a right-wing prosecutor could use that same information to put women in jail,” Wyden wrote in a press release announcing his letter to the FTC.

But Paul Westcott, executive vice president of sales and marketing at the data company L2, said he doesn’t think it’s likely law enforcement would approach geofencing companies for this kind of information. “To go to a marketer for that would be odd,” Westcott said. “If it’s a law enforcement investigation, they typically go right to the source—they’re gonna go to the phone carriers themselves.”

On top of that, Choose Life Marketing’s Scott Baker said his company doesn’t collect or store anyone’s personal data: “We don’t keep any digital records of anyone.”

Jacob Barr, the iRapture founder and CEO, said the same. He doesn’t know whether the geofencing company he partners with stores device IDs, but iRapture certainly doesn’t. “We simply know how many people saw the ad in that space,” Barr said. “We’re not tracking in any way that could be followed up with a lawsuit.”

Even if they had that kind of data, the idea that pro-life marketers or the pregnancy resource centers they work with would seek to get women in trouble with the law is ludicrous, says Andrea Trudden. She’s vice president of communications and marketing at Heartbeat International, a network of pregnancy help resources with over 3,000 affiliates. “The pregnancy help movement is there to serve women and not get them arrested,” Trudden said. “We would do everything in our power that is legal to protect their information.”

That’s one reason Trudden felt particularly troubled when she started seeing criticism of the Veritas Society’s ad campaign. “It seems that when pregnancy centers or pro-life organizations start to implement practices that have been around for several years and have been employed by corporations worldwide, all of a sudden, the reason they’re doing it must be nefarious,” she said.

It’s become much more challenging for pregnancy centers to advertise on Google and Yelp, with the latter even requiring consumer alerts notifying searchers that crisis pregnancy centers do not provide abortions.

Trudden said the online outrage over this issue is just one example of growing opposition toward pro-life marketing and messaging online. She said it’s become much more challenging for pregnancy resource centers to advertise on Google and Yelp, with the latter even requiring consumer alerts notifying searchers that pregnancy resource centers do not provide abortions. Trudden said Heartbeat International hasn’t been able to advertise its abortion pill rescue network on Google since the platform deemed it “misinformation” in 2021.

Much of this opposition comes from outside groups pressuring companies like Google and Meta, according to Baker. One such group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, put out a 2023 report accusing Choose Life Marketing and iRapture of “deceptive advertising” to promote “fake healthcare clinics and the marketing infrastructure that underpins the spread of their medical misinformation, in a post-Dobbs digital environment.”

Other resistance comes from state lawmakers, Baker said. “We’ve seen laws in some states introduced that would eliminate any kind of marketing that centers could do,” he said. Last year, Illinois passed a law prohibiting pregnancy resource centers from using so-called “deceptive” marketing techniques, and states such as Colorado, New Jersey, and Vermont have advanced similar plans.

Although Illinois’ law was later scrapped on First Amendment grounds, Trudden said all this antagonism can be “very daunting” for pregnancy resource centers that don’t have the cash or clout of their opponents. “They don’t have time to mess with this,” she said. “They’re simply trying to help the women in their communities.”

While frustrating, the opposition proves pregnancy resource centers and pro-life marketers are on the right track, Baker said: “If they were ineffective, they would be ignored.”

Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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