Free Speech - Is there an App for that?

By: Linda Lye

Free speech means that we all have the ability to express and hear a range of ideas. But does that extend to the world of apps? We say yes. Nearly 50 million of us carry smartphones that let us browse the marketplace of online apps – which is also a marketplace of ideas and expression. Companies like Apple, Google and RIM have the power and opportunity to make sure that their users have access to a free flow of ideas in app stores.

This week four U.S. Senators asked Apple, Google and RIM to remove certain apps, with the claim that they're harmful. (The apps in question contained information about the location of DUI checkpoints. Under California law these checkpoints are already required to be publicized, in part because announcing checkpoints is itself a deterrent to drunk driving.) RIM has already taken down that app. The ACLU of Northern California is asking Apple and Google not to cave to the pressure.

Sure, apps can range from serious to wacky to disturbing or tacky. But when companies take down apps because someone finds them offensive, that's censorship.

If free speech is going to have a future in the digital age, we need information to flow freely through our virtual town squares. If major players in cyberspace decide to censor apps that convey ideas or truthful information because the government or individuals take offense, democracy as a whole will suffer for it.

Read the ACLU of Northern California's letter to Apple and Google [pdf].

Linda Lye is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.