Earlier this week, Google removed an app called “Disconnect Mobile” from the Google Play app store.
Disconnect Mobile is a privacy tool that stops other apps from collecting data on users. In the five days it was available in Google’s store, it was downloaded more than 5,000 times, reports the Wall Street Journal, which broke the news on the banned app.
The startup makes a similar app for iOS and a popular desktop version used by 2 million people.
Google sent Disconnect an email telling the startup that the app violated a rule. Google doesn’t allow any app in its store that “interferes with” other apps.
Cofounder Casey Oppenheim thinks Google categorized the app as an ad blocker and that’s why it was banned.
Google, which gives Android away for free and relies on advertising for the bulk of its income, has famously removed other ad-blocking apps from its app store.
But Oppenheim says his app is not a classic ad blocker and was carefully constructed not to violate any of Google’s rules. In a blog post, he writes:
“Disconnect focuses on protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware, and all too often these threats come in the form of advertising.
… The fact is, we are not opposed to advertising and think advertising plays a critical role in the Internet economy. But we are 100% opposed to advertising that invisibly tracks people and compromises their security.”
The company wouldn’t comment to the Wall Street Journal on the specifics of this case but it did offer this statement: “Our policies are designed to provide a great experience for users and developers. That’s why we remove apps from Google Play that violate those policies.”
We also reached out to Google and will update when we hear back.
Traffic has been so overwhelming since news of the blocked app broke, that Disconnect’s blog website keeps going down.
The startup’s cofounder, Casey Oppenheim, sent Business Insider a copy of the email:
From: Google Play Support <googleplay-developer-
Date: Tue, Aug 26, 2014 at 1:46 PM
Subject: Notification from Google Play
To: [email protected]
This is a notification that your application, Disconnect Mobile, with package ID me.disconnect.mobile, has been removed from the Google Play Store. REASON FOR REMOVAL: Violation of section 4.4 of the Developer Distribution Agreement.
After a regular review we have determined that your app interferes with or accesses another service or product in an unauthorised manner. This violates the provision of your agreement with Google referred to above.
This particular app has been disabled as a policy strike. If your developer account is still in good standing, (and the nature of your app allows for it), you may revise and upload a policy compliant version of this application as a new package name.
This notification also serves as notice for remaining, unsuspended violations in your catalogue, and you may avoid further app suspensions by immediately unpublishing any apps in violation of (but not limited to) the above policy. Once you have resolved any existing violations, you may republish the app(s) at will. Before publishing applications, please ensure your apps’ compliance with the Developer Distribution
Agreement and Content Policy.
All violations are tracked. Serious or repeated violations of any nature will result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts. If your account is terminated, payments will cease and Google may recover the proceeds of any past sales and/or the cost of any associated fees (such as chargebacks and transaction fees) from you.
If you feel we have made this determination in error, you can visit this Google Play Help Center article for additional information regarding this removal.
The Google Play Team
And he also sent us a copy of the blog post:
Google just banned our new Mobile Android app before it even launched
Another example privacy friendly alternatives for Android app distribution are critically important
This post is about more than our new app, Disconnect Mobile, being arbitrarily removed by Google from the Play Store Tuesday, five days after it went live and prior to doing any PR announcement. This post is really about Google’s disregard for user privacy and security, their ability to arbitrarily and unilaterally ban any app from the world’s dominant mobile operating system (78% of total smartphones run Android), and the importance of alternative Android distribution platforms that support privacy and security.
Our part in this story began two days ago. As our small team excitedly prepared for the imminent PR launch of our mobile privacy apps for iOS and Android, our CTO Patrick Jackson received this email from Google, notifying us that they’d removed the application from the Play Store after only five days:
The term our app allegedly violated, 4.4, and the very brief description of the reason was so vague and overly broad that every app in the Play Store, even Google’s own applications, could be alleged to be in violation! With terms like this, Google can ban any app for no good reason at all.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve been blocked from launching a privacy app in the Play Store. In early 2013, after nine months of development on a previously conceived version of our Android product, Google announced that they were pulling the ability to automatically set a localhost proxy, which our product and other privacy apps relied on.
Because of that experience, we took every precaution with our new app (like with our existing Android apps) not to utilise any technology that wasn’t clearly documented and actively supported by Google. The banned app utilizes the VpnService API that has been made publicly available by Google since at least 2011. Thousands of other applications utilise the same API.
So why were we targeted and why didn’t Google provide an explanation? Although we may never know Google’s true motivation for removing our app, it seems likely that they determined it threatened their tracking and advertising based business model, which accounts for over 90% of Google’s $US66 billion in estimated 2014 annual revenue. Put another way, we think Google mistook us for an adblocker.
But our mobile product (like our Desktop product) is not an adblocker. Instead Disconnect focuses on protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware, and all too often these threats come in the form of advertising. In fact, some of the most privacy invasive data collection online happens through ads, which see you even if you don’t see or interact with them. And worse, ad networks (including Google) are increasingly being used by “advertisers” to
spread malware. This increasingly popular tactic, called malvertising, is currently being investigated by the US Senate, and Disconnect Mobile is the first app to directly address it.
The fact is, we are not opposed to advertising and think advertising plays a critical role in the Internet economy. But we are 100% opposed to advertising that invisibly tracks people and compromises their security.
Our FAQ for Disconnect Mobile states our position further:
“Rather than block all advertisements, we only block the privacyinvasive ads that invisibly track you and may be responsible for distributing malware (malvertising) and other security threats.
We also generally unblock ad tracking websites that commit to respect users’ Do Not Track (DNT) preferences and agree to comply with DNT as defined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/dntpolicy.
We’re not alone in wanting privacy and security protections from online advertising, and we have every reason to believe that there is huge pentup demand for the banned product. Over 2 million people actively use our desktop products and the most common customer request by far is to bring similar products to mobile.
Indeed, we had quietly launched the identical iOS version of the banned Android app a few weeks back and this past weekend it became the #1 grossing Utility app on iTunes! Even more indicative of market demand is the fact that we have lined up several distribution partnerships that could have reached over 100 million people over the next few months.
We are determined to oppose Google’s decision and hope our app will be available in the Play Store again soon. But at the same time, this experience has effectively wiped out months of hard work and has highlighted a serious and increasingly dangerous problem: Google has way too much power over distribution of applications on Android and can kill applications at will without justification. This is why efforts to create alternative Android based platforms that respect user privacy like Blackphone’s PrivatOS (on which Disconnect is the default search provider and a preinstalled application) and CyanogenMod (a more open aftermarket firmware distribution for Android devices) are so important for the future of the increasingly Androidbased Internet.
In addition to promoting alternatives, we will be challenging Google to reinstate our app in the Play Store, and to update its policies to respect developer rights and an individual’s right to protect their privacy and security. Further, we will continue to work with and support the efforts of proprivacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology and Fight for the Future.
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