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BlackBerry bans drink-drive apps

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Responding to complaints from four US senators, RIM has expelled two applications that warn users when they're approaching a police checkpoint, though Apple has yet to do the same.

The applications don't just show checkpoints looking for drunk drivers – they also list speed traps, enforcement cameras and other road hazards – but it's the functionality that allows drunk drivers to plan a route avoiding police detection that has got the senators so worked up.

Those senators – Harry Reid (Nevada), Charles Schumer (New York), Frank Lautenberg (New Jersey) and Tom Udall (New Mexico) – wrote to RIM, Apple and Google to ask that the applications be removed from their respective stores. Apple hasn't responded, and Trapster is still listed in the Google Marketplace (though phatomAlert has disappeared), but RIM has expunged both apps from its App World store.

Not that RIM's ban will prevent anyone using the applications: in fact the publishers of both Trapster and PhantomALERT report downloads have increased significantly since the complaint attracted media attention, and as RIM doesn't restrict what applications can be installed, the removal from the official app store isn't such a big deal.

The applications don't do anything illegal: both are reliant on users to report enforcement activity to the benefit of others, so legally no different from getting the nod from an oncoming car. But showing the locations of checkpoints on a map is a step too far for some, despite the publishers' assertions that it prevents drink driving:

"I personally witnessed a few drivers coming through the checkpoints, telling the officers that they were going to pick up a drunk friend because they saw on Trapster that we had a checkpoint operating," says the quotation on the Trapster site, attributing it to Lt. Chris Wynn, who "until recently headed the Escondido Police Department's traffic bureau".

But the real question is if we want application stores to act as ethical filters over the applications we run, and whose ethics should be applied? Apple apparently removed the "cure for homosexuality" app on the grounds that it was "offensive to large groups of people" who organised protests and complained loudly. Trapster and PhantomALERT only prompted complaints from four people, who happen to be elected senators: not enough for Apple, more than enough for RIM, and nearly enough for Google. ®

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