Senators Pressure Mobile App Stores to Kill Politically Incorrect Apps

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-03-23 Print this article Print

News Analysis: Four Democratic senators gang up on the young mobile app industry in an attempt to force them to pull applications that report the locations of police sobriety checkpoints.

There is a saying here in Washington that "no man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session." It was reputedly coined by Judge Gideon Tucker, who was commenting on the New York state legislature in the 1800s, and it was quickly picked up by Mark Twain.

That saying remains true, and I was recently reminded of this through a column by my friend John Dvorak over at our former sister publication, PC Magazine. Four senators-Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; and Tom Udall, D-N.M.-have written a letter to the primary makers of smartphones demanding that they remove applications from their respective online stores that alert people to where police are conducting checkpoints. The senators claim these apps are promoting drunk driving, since, they say, only drunk drivers would have a use for them.

This is, of course, total cra ... er ... hogwash. The process of telling citizens about government activity is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The fact that it's being performed by an app that passes along reports from citizens to other citizens is entirely beside the point. The fact that it's being used primarily to report police sobriety checkpoints is also beside the point. The bottom line is that this group of four senators is trying to compel limitations on protected speech.

This, of course, should be no surprise. Congress in general, and these senators in particular, have long done whatever they thought they might be able to get away with in their efforts to limit the rights of the citizens of the United States to keep tabs on what their government is doing. This is just one more example of trying to force a limit on the freedom of speech through coercion rather than legislation because they know that actually getting a law passed would only mean that it would be overturned in court.

But attempting to force these companies-Apple, Google and RIM-through nonlegislative means avoids a court challenge. It's also possible that these companies may feel they have no choice. After all, these companies sell their products to the federal government; they're licensed by the federal government; and the use of force by legislators to put pressure on companies that are breaking no laws is a common tactic by grandstanding senators.

If you attend enough hearings-or watch enough C-SPAN-you'll see plenty of executives being brought to hearings and being forced to account for the way they do business, even though in the vast majority of cases they're doing nothing wrong. When members of Congress want to bully a company, they only need to call a hearing. No legislation contemplated or in process is needed.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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