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Senators push for removal of DUI checkpoint apps

by Phil Hornshaw

Just a day after an online petition and outrage from protesters prompted Apple to remove an anti-gay ministry’s app from its iTunes App Store, the company is being pressured again to remove apps from its market -- this time by members of the federal government.

Four democratic senators have banded together to pressure mobile app sellers -- specifically Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Research in Motion (RIMM), the maker of BlackBerry -- to remove apps from their various app marketplaces that identify police DUI checkpoints. According to Ars Technica’s story, “Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Harry Reid (D-NV), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Tom Udall (D-NM) have written an open letter to Apple, Google, and RIM asking the companies to stop peddling apps that help drunk drivers avoid the police, calling the software ‘harmful to public safety.’”

The senators claim the apps are specifically marketed at people looking to break the law and help them do it. The apps have a range of functions: some cause checkpoints to show up on a Google map, while others allow users to share information about checkpoints social network-style. There are apps available on all three platforms, with some sending push notifications to a device as the driver nears a checkpoint, and others identifying things like school zones in addition to the checkpoint areas.

Here’s another quote from the senators’ letter:

"We appreciate the technology that has allowed millions of Americans to have information at their fingertips, but giving drunk drivers a free tool to evade checkpoints, putting innocent families and children at risk, is a matter of public concern. We know that your companies share our desire to end the scourge of drunk driving and we therefore would ask you to remove these applications from your store unless they are altered to remove the DUI/DWI checkpoint functionality."

It’s hard to side with potential drunk drivers on this one -- the senators’ letter states that 10,000 Americans die per year in drunk driving-related accidents -- but as eWeek points out, these senators are pressuring app sellers to pull apps they don’t like without actually having the law to back them up. Technically, reporting public government activity to people, even DUI checkpoints meant to surprise drivers, is protected under the First Amendment. Plenty of print publications, such as L.A. Weekly, do it every weekend.

What’s underhanded about the whole situation is that the open letter is a form of coercion, eWeek’s article says, and it’s already working. RIM has already pulled its DUI checkpoint apps, and Apple’s reputation of, more or less, quietly shying away from any potential conflict is pretty well-documented. These companies rely on the government for contracts and licensing, and sending this open letter “urging” them to action could be seen as somewhat threatening. Legislation limiting these apps from doing what they do would never hold up in court, eWeek reasons, so these senators have to get their way by some other means.

While not everyone will agree with eWeek’s take on the situation, it does raise some good points about freedom of speech and government pressure on businesses. It also adds a new dimension to the discussion started this week with gay rights protesters complaining to Apple about the Exodus International app we told you about yesterday and Monday. What rights should app makers have in the App Store, and should Apple and others bend to the will of the people, be they minority or majority, over what developers can and cannot make?

The outcome of this whole situation should be rather interesting. Apple, for its part, will likely pull the apps and side with the government, because in the App Store, no one has any rights that Apple doesn’t give them. That’s the model the company is going with and it’s the price of admission into the walled garden that is the iTunes App Store.

Meanwhile, Google is in a position to stand up to these senators and fight on the side of free speech, should it find it has a case. It’s in that company’s interest to provide a more free and open environment for app makers. Whether either system is good or bad, however, is a decision left up to the apps’ users.