Foursquare Is Trying to Save Net Neutrality Using Location Data

Tech companies band together to target five key states

The ads focus on citizens whom Foursquare’s tracking tech has determined frequent government buildings, universities and tech or media companies. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

With Congress’ net neutrality vote looming, a last-ditch ad campaign is using location data to guess the savviest constituents of the handful of Senators considered most likely to flip on the issue.

Spearheaded by tech companies Foursquare, Shutterstock, Tinder, Vimeo and Warby Parker, the mobile ads target five states—Colorado, Nevada, Louisiana, Alaska and Florida. The ads focus on citizens whom Foursquare’s tracking tech has determined frequent government buildings, universities and tech or media companies.

The company’s data team has decided these are the places with people most likely to call lawmakers and urge them to vote in favor of a bill that would reinstate net neutrality protections when it comes before the Senate on Wednesday.

“We know that where people go is the best indicator of who they are,” said Sarah Spagnolo, Foursquare’s comms director and editor at large, who organized the campaign. “We worked with our [Pinpoint location-tracking system] trading desk to identify the people who would be most likely to believe in net neutrality and agitate in favor of it.”

The effort is part of a bigger campaign from several tech companies called Red Alert with creative supplied by Foursquare’s new in-house agency, Sixteen. Last week, each company involved also ran prominent ads in support of net neutrality on their homepages or apps for a designated “Red Alert Day.”

A week since first running the ads, Foursquare said they’ve had the most engagement in Florida—particularly among government building visitors—where experts have identified Sen. Marco Rubio as a possible swing vote in Wednesday’s decision. Other politicians targeted include senators in each of the other four targeted states: Sen. Cory Gardner, Sen. Dean Heller, Sen. John Kennedy and Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Foursquare claims it’s reached around a tenth of the online population in each of their states.

Because of the narrow target audience, Spagnolo said the ad copy was written for people already clued into the basics of the issue. Sixteen designed all the creative material.

“We all know the ubiquitous status bar, the one that loads quickly at first, then slows down to a crawl when you’re so close,” said Foursquare creative director Lana Porter in an email. “We used the visual mnemonic of the slow loading bar in a graphic ‘red alert’ red to get people’s attention, then delivered messaging about the value of net neutrality.”

Of course, people who care about net neutrality might also be more likely to be wary about having their location tracked and used for advertising purposes. However, Spagnolo said Foursquare is transparent about how it collects data, adding that the process is entirely opt-in.

This isn’t the first time Foursquare has lobbied for net neutrality protections. The company previously joined other tech companies in suing the Federal Communications Commission over its decision to roll back Obama-era rules that barred telecoms from prioritizing certain types of internet traffic over others.

The Senate will vote on whether to reverse that decision this week. If passed, the bill will then head to the House of Representatives.

Update: The Senate voted in a 52-47 decision Wednesday afternoon to reverse the FCC’s ruling rolling back net neutrality protections, thanks in part to support from Kennedy and Murkowski. The bill still faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and, from there, the president’s desk.

As open internet advocates cheered the small step forward, at least one FCC commissioner expressed disappointment with the outcome.

“We are cutting billions of dollars’ worth of red tape that has been slowing broadband deployment,” FCC commissioner Brendan Carr said in a statement. “We are freeing up more spectrum for next-gen wireless broadband than any other country in the world. And we are promoting the deployment of broadband infrastructure from big cities to small towns.”

Meanwhile, Democratic senators celebrated the passage on Twitter while acknowledging the long road ahead.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.