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Phone apps let users mock the law, but authorities aren't laughing

By Shan Li

Los Angeles Times

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 8:33 p.m. MDT

Among the most controversial apps are the ones that warn drivers about drunk-driving checkpoints.

This year, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and three other senators asked Apple Inc., Google Inc. and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. to remove the DUI apps from their stores, saying such apps made it easier for drunk drivers to evade arrest, heightening the danger to other motorists.

Research in Motion and Apple complied, but Google refused. A Google spokesman said the apps did not violate its content policy but declined to elaborate.

Eric Fonoimoana of Hermosa Beach, Calif., doesn't see a problem. The 42-year-old real estate agent travels frequently around Southern California for work and relies on PhantomAlert, one of the DUI apps banned by the app stores, to ensure a smoother commute.

"With unemployment so high, it's incredible that the government is wasting time on smartphone apps," Fonoimoana said. "Sure, you can use it for bad purposes, but a lot of people just use it to avoid traffic. Checkpoints can really clog up the roads."

Jan Withers, president-elect of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, begs to differ. The apps are dangerous, she said, and need to be regulated.

"These are marketed for tipsy drivers to evade the police," she said. "Common sense tells us that most or many people who use it want to avoid getting arrested for drinking."

Courts have ruled that software code — which is what apps essentially are — is free speech and protected in much the same way as books, movies and music. The Supreme Court, in vigorously defending free speech, notably struck down a California law last month that banned sales of violent video games to minors.

"There has yet to be a big court case over apps, so you cannot say 100 percent that it would be protected as free speech," said Samuels of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But given how the court has ruled in the last few years, any law ... regulating apps would most likely be struck down."

John Morris, general counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights advocacy group in Washington, said regulating apps is akin to "playing Whac-A-Mole."

"As soon as you regulate one type of app, another will spring up that you have never even thought of," he said. "Lawmakers would always be playing catch-up."

Apple, Google and Research in Motion do set certain guidelines for developers who want to sell apps through their official digital storefronts. Most ban apps that violate copyrights or trademarks, and some distinguish on matters of taste.

The Apple App Store and the Android Market, for example, ban pornography. BlackBerry's guidelines for developers says it will reject apps for "inappropriate" content, including anything that is "abusive, belittling, harassing, deceptive or malicious," but company executives declined to elaborate.

Android and BlackBerry also allow developers to operate unofficial digital storefronts where banned or rejected apps can be sold. Even Apple, which does not allow apps to be sold outside of its official App Store, has competition from black-market app stores.

Cydia, the largest of the underground Apple stores, has thousands of rejected or banned iPhone and iPad apps for sale, including iSnort, for simulating snorting cocaine, and one for digitally defacing religious icons called Me So Holy.

Founder Jay Freeman said Apple was like "an anticompetitive Big Brother," with apps often banned for mysterious and unexplained reasons.

But Freeman does not allow certain kinds of apps, such as child pornography, into the store.

"Even I have to draw the line somewhere," he said.

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