June 09, 2011

Apple Caves on DUI Apps: Free Speech Suffers, but Nobody Is Likely Safer

I can certainly see this one coming. This is one of those postings that guarantees an angry email barrage in short order. But for the moment the servers are still all running, the queues are in pretty good shape, and the hamsters are running full speed on the generator wheels. And these days I'm in even less of a mood to mince words than ever.

You'll recall that Congress has been figuratively beating up on Apple and Google lately, this time regarding smartphone apps that allow users to report or be warned regarding DUI (Driving Under Influence) checkpoints (that is, roadblocks).

When this issue initially came up recently, with a gaggle of U.S. Senators writing RIM, Apple, and Google asking them to ban such applications, RIM servilely complied immediately.

Google and Apple both refused, noting that while they would make efforts to remove illegal apps, they did not view DUI notification apps as illegal. And in fact, they are not illegal. Period.

Today comes word that Apple has apparently caved on this matter, and has changed its notoriously arbitrary App Store Review Guidelines to ban drunk driving/DUI applications, and will review the existing ones, presumably in preparation to retroactively ban them as well.

A chorus of politicians and tech columnists immediately sprang forth today to sing the praises of Apple for this strike against this particular designated evil of free speech.

For that is what we're really talking about. It is not illegal to report DUI roadblocks. It is not illegal to tell people where such police activity is occurring -- in the U.S., anyway. It is unlikely that any attempt to make such reporting illegal would easily withstand court scrutiny. Nor would a ban on such information be practical even if it was successfully enacted and then approved by the courts.

Attention in this sphere will now inevitably turn toward Google and Android apps. Since Google wisely does not operate a restrictive, approval-based App Store (in contrast to Apple), and since Android users can easily create, share, and "sideload" apps without using the Android app store at all, Google cannot effectively block apps before installation, and even their use of the Android app "kill switch" -- only activated in extreme cases to date -- can be circumvented by users in various ways.

But unlike many observers, I don't condemn this state of affairs regarding Android. Rather, I applaud it. When I buy a device I feel justified in demanding that I be allowed to run any legal application on it that I choose. For all practical purposes, Android provides this crucial capability. I can write my own Android apps, I can download them directly from Web sites. I take responsibility for my own use of my technological property.

This is of course not in keeping with the current "politically correct" ideology, that users of technology must be controlled in ever increasing detail by manufacturers, carriers, ISPs, and ultimately by government. "Users cannot be trusted," says this mantra -- they must be constrained to only use technology in the manners and circumstances that government ultimately deems fit to bless.

While the DUI apps case indeed has elements that invoke aspects of the upcoming battle over PROTECT IP and government-mandated search engine censorship, at this stage demands for the removal of these apps are more in the nefarious "nod and wink" zone.

That is, given that the government cannot order Google, Apple, or others to ban such apps providing legal information, Congress is trying to apply pressure through the "chokepoints" of major Internet firms, via a kind of "friendly persuasion" that would have seemed perhaps familiar to Al Capone (in this case, of course always with the unspoken threat that failure to comply might result in more intense Congressional scrutiny of these firms in other ways).

All too often today, law enforcement is attempting to block us from the legal noting, reporting, or recording of openly visible enforcement activities in public places -- note the sometimes violent reactions to citizens simply attempting to document police activities using camcorders or phones.

Efforts to prevent the public from reporting or accessing information regarding "sobriety checkpoint" roadblocks on public thoroughfares is yet another example of law enforcement and political overreaching.

Two ironies in all this immediately present themselves. First, there is no evidence I know of documenting that the use of smartphone DUI apps increases drinking, drunk driving, or accidents in any manner. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when many persons know that there are DUI checkpoints on their route, they either don't drink or find a designated driver who isn't drinking -- both highly positive outcomes for everyone involved.

But the other irony in all this is that even if smartphone apps providing this information were somehow 100% effectively banned, the availability of such data would be hardly reduced at all. The same data is available on vast numbers of conventional Web sites, via automated email, SMS text messages, and other means. Anyone with a bit of skill can throw together a script to leverage standard GPS data with such sites to provide very much the same capabilities as dedicated apps.

This really isn't about the scourge of drunk driving, a horror that nobody supports. Rather, we're talking not only about fundamental principles of free speech, but also regarding the inability of specific restrictions on speech to actually achieve their ostensible goals.

Given the realities of this situation, it is difficult to view the Congressional pressures being asserted as much more in the end than political posturing, even if we assume that the motives of the Senators involved are purely honorable ones.

Drunk driving has enormous costs for society, both in terms of lives and money.

But I would argue that attempts to control free speech, particularly efforts to prevent the dissemination of information regarding the open activities of law enforcement and other government officials in public places, ultimately carry enormously greater potential risks and costs to society, especially when such information restrictions cannot possibly achieve their stated goals.


Posted by Lauren at June 9, 2011 11:19 AM | Permalink
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