By Matt Peckham | Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 6:02 am
Between the controversies over gay “cure” apps and police checkpoint tipoff tools, it’s been a tough week for Apple’s App Store. But while it’s pretty clear that an app designed to “cure” homosexuality verges on hate speech, are we courting trouble, turning which apps are “acceptable” and which ones aren’t into a political nannying game?
Take “police avoidance.” Senators Frank Lautenberg, Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, and Tom Udall are asking Apple, Google, and RIM to scupper mobile applications designed, it seems, to help inebriated drivers dodge police. The senators also dispatched letters to the companies that designed the apps, requesting they either pull them or excise a “DUI checkpoint” feature.
The apps allow users to view realtime updates of checkpoints reported by others, a kind of “citizen awareness” system designed to give drivers who may or may not be inebriated a tactical edge. Think of it as a more sophisticated version of the light-blink signal oncoming driver sometimes give to warn of a speed trap up the road in the other direction.
Driving under the influence is no joke and rightly condemned. The number of people killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents annually is more than triple the number that died in the September 11 attacks. Make no mistake, drunk driving is dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal.
But so is driving over the speed limit. And yet–with the exception of Virginia and Washington D.C.–we don’t ban or outlaw the use of radar detectors in private vehicles, also every bit a “police avoidance” tool.
Assuming the answer isn’t that we instantly outlaw the latter, do we want companies like Apple or individuals in government office deciding what’s salable and what’s not? We have laws that protect citizens from hate speech. We have laws that make drunk driving illegal. But we have no laws that render basic citizen coordination illegal.
It’s barely a hop from banning an app that offers police checkpoint tips (not unlike the use of CBs by truck drivers) to banning one that helps peaceful protesters organize, or others that assist watchdog groups (including journalists) to serve as an independent monitor of power (see The Elements of Journalism)–to “watch the watchmen,” if you will.
I’m not saying trying to elude the police while driving under the influence is ethical. I’m just saying we need to be cautious here, so that in the process of doing what seems like the right or common sense thing at the time, doesn’t lend itself to cries for bans of anything whatsoever deemed culturally or politically controversial.