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Maker of driving app miffed at RIM's takedown

The battle between lawmakers and app makers over applications that alert users to police presence has its first casualty. Meanwhile, similar apps on other platforms count themselves lucky, for now.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
6 min read
PhantomAlert's app
PhantomAlert's app running on a GPS system, where it remains available. CNET

The maker of a controversial mobile app that critics contend helps drunken drivers avoid police says his company is getting a raw deal from politicians and app marketplaces.

Up until last week, driving-alerts application PhantomAlert had been available on Research In Motion's BlackBerry App World. PhantomAlert CEO Joe Scott is miffed that the software has been taken down by RIM, in a decision that was not shared with him.

"It's just sad, we never got contacted by the senators or anyone else," Scott said in an interview with CNET this morning. "We're more than just DUI checkpoints. We do school zones, speed bumps, and we're endorsed by over 35 police departments."

PhantomAlert's takedown follows a letter published last week by a group of U.S. senators urging Apple, Google, and RIM to remove applications they said encouraged drunken driving by supplying users with information about DUI checkpoints.

The initial letter, which was drafted by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), urged the three technology companies to self-police their mobile application stores, removing applications that contained things like a database of driving under the influence (DUI) checkpoints, and real-time alerts of their presence to app users.

So far, only RIM has complied with the request, pulling down an unspecified number of applications that met these criteria including PhantomAlert as well as crowd-sourced speed-trap finder Trapster. CNET reached out to RIM for comment on how many apps were a part of that sweep and if any have been given a reprieve, but the company declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Apple has not addressed the original letter, and Google told CNET last week that the description of what these apps do did not violate its Android Marketplace policies. CNET's congressional sources say the senators have not provided an exhaustive list of apps to the three companies, but have cited examples and asked the companies to search their database of applications and remove those that are of the type described.

Since PhantomAlert's removal, Scott says he's been in contact with RIM, though the company has been unwilling to bring it back on the market. Scott said he worries what kind of precedent this sets for the group to go after other tools that surface such information.

"What's scary about this is if people start tweeting about (police checkpoints). Are they going to go after Twitter, are they going to go after Facebook? I don't think that's the right approach."

Don't feel too bad though. Scott says the exposure from this has boosted downloads of the application on other platforms by as much as 8,000 percent and paid subscriptions by around 3,000 percent, including in Google's and Apple's mobile marketplaces, as well as on various GPS devices where it can be installed. A similar effect has hit other application makers that provide information on police checkpoints alongside other traffic-related information.

Fuzz Alert, which also serves up DUI checkpoints has remained safe since Apple has not taken action to remove such applications.
Fuzz Alert, which also serves up the location of DUI checkpoints, has remained safe since Apple has not taken action to remove such applications. Fuzz Alert

One of those is Fuzz Alert, which remains exclusive to Apple's App Store. Owner Steve Croke, who CNET spoke with, said that his application has seen a dramatic surge in popularity, trending near the top of the navigation category in the App Store following the attention. Even so, Croke said that DUI checkpoints play an incredibly small part in his application's features and data sourcing.

"Less than 5 percent of the traps in my system are DUI checkpoints," Croke said. Instead, the application aims to alert users to intersections with red-light and speed cameras by sending out audio notifications when in range of known locations. Croke also said that the DUI checkpoint feature was not the reason he made the app in the first place.

"Never was the intent to make someone screw with the DUI checkpoints. It's basically alerting people that the smart thing is to not drink and drive, and being in this space I see all the bad things about it," Croke said. "If I can keep one guy from not putting a key to the ignition, I think I've had a big win."

Croke said the inspiration for the app stemmed from him getting a speeding ticket on a stretch of road that had a photo radar device near his house. That particular time he wasn't paying attention and blew right past it. "It just dawned on me that this is the perfect app to alert someone to be aware of where you are," Croke said.

Croke also believes himself to be lucky that he didn't spend the time or the effort developing his application on RIM's platform, and says the company's actions are a big turnoff to him. "My first reaction was 'Wow, I'm glad I didn't develop for that platform,'" Croke said. "That would crush a business."

Siding with app makers like Croke and Scott is the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), an advocacy group for small businesses. Following the original letter, ACT said that the senators had missed the point.

"The suggestion that the government should compel Apple, RIM, or other mobile application stores to block programs that simply allow users to report information based on location is misguided at best," said Morgan Reed, ACT's executive director, in a statement last week. "Taken to its conclusion, that would require blocking apps like Foursquare and Loopt."

In a follow-up letter addressed to Schumer and published earlier this week, ACT President Jonathan Zuck noted that the data being used in apps like PhantomAlert is being furnished by law enforcement agencies:

"I understand from your letter and further press activity that you consider apps like PhantomAlert and Trapster to be in conflict with the public interest on the issue of traffic safety. I respectfully suggest that you may have been unaware that law enforcement agencies are legally required to publish data featured in these programs. Moreover, they believe the widespread dissemination of this information effectively serves to reduce speeding and improve traffic safety."

Zuck went on to say that the mobile app industry is growing, and that most developers are in America, which means that cutting apps could send jobs overseas.

"If the mobile application storefronts begin to pull apps outside of the regular regulatory environment or terms of service agreements simply to respond to any extra-governmental missive, we fear it will harm growth here, but more importantly lead to aggressive action abroad where other governments may see such action as a tool to curb U.S. competitiveness."

Not everyone is siding with the app makers though. Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler sent a letter to Apple and Google earlier this week. In it, the pair urged the companies to flat out ban such apps, referring to them as "nothing more than an overt method of circumventing laws that were specifically enacted to save lives," and a "'how-to' guide to evade DUI checkpoints and endanger the lives of innocent citizens on our roads." That approach has been met with similar responses from the two companies: Apple not issuing a public response, and Google once again saying that the claim had not provided specific examples.

Mobile application marketplaces continue to face censorship issues, and are a point of competition among the companies that create and control them. Each of the three companies has its own policies on what is and is not allowed, but all bar anything illegal or that encourages illegal behavior. Though the gray area with these applications in particular has further demonstrated that there is a subtle difference in approach.

While Apple has so far been seen as the most conservative of the bunch, keeping out some applications that competitors like Google have allowed for sale, it now sits in the same camp as the search giant, while RIM has gone in a different direction. As Fuzz Alert's Croke noted, this could change a developer's inclination to put in the sometimes considerable resources necessary to get an application developed and published.

That doesn't mean Apple's and Google's application stores are safe havens for applications like these. As the two companies spell out in their storefront guidelines, things change.