It’s not often that Google removes apps from the Play Store, particularly because most apps are harmless and only want access to typical user information. Some apps that arrive in the Google Play Store contain malware, and are either 1) discovered by users and announced or 2) removed by Google – now that Google scans apps for malware upon downloading them. Google now actively monitors the presence of malware so that users can no longer complain about downloaded apps that are later flagged in their antivirus software for “containing invasive malware,” for example.
Apparently, one privacy app in particular has now met the wrath of Google. The app is called “Disconnect Mobile,” and the app company’s goal with Disconnect is to ensure that Android apps aren’t allowed to grab user data from other Android apps without user consent.
Google wrote Disconnect Mobile on Tuesday, alerting the company that its app had been removed from the Play Store: “This is a notification that your application, 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’ve determined that your app interferes with or accesses another service or product in an unauthorized manner. This violates the provision of your agreement with Google referred to above,” Google stated in the alert letter.
Section 4.4 of the Developer Distribution Agreement states that “You agree you will not engage in any activity with the Market, including the development or distribution of Products, that interferes with, disrupts, damages, or accesses in an unauthorized manner the devices, servers, networks, or other properties or services of any third party including, but not limited to, Android users, Google or any mobile network operator.”
Disconnect responded to the Google letter: “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!”
Disconnect Mobile claims that Google treated its app as an ad-blocking app, but section 4.4 of the Developer Distribution Agreement says that apps can’t be developed that interfere with “servers, networks, or other properties or services of any third party” – which would include the ability of third parties to access information across apps in the Android ecosystem.
While Disconnect says that Google blocked its service because it prevents Google from earning money on mobile ads (90% of Google’s $66 billion in this year alone came from mobile ads), it’s also the case that Disconnect’s Mobile blocks ads in general because it can’t distinguish between malware-ridden and non-malware-ridden ads.
Any malware ad-blocking services often interfere with normal ads, which is how Google makes its mobile profit while offering Android for free to its users. The agreement also includes “any third party”; even if a third party is accessing more user data than it should, the user (who downloads the apps) must agree to certain concessions to access the app – and Disconnect Mobile seems to be a way for users to agree to have their user data accessed while negating their agreement by preventing access to that same data.
Is it the case that Disconnect Mobile’s app is ad-blocking? Yes. After all, developers make money from ads, and Google cannot afford to have its developers unhappy when the company makes money off of mobile ads and app downloads. With that said, Disconnect claims that there are other mobile apps that do the same thing as theirs, but those apps are allowed in the Google Play Store.
We may never get to the bottom of the violation, but Disconnect had some harsh words regarding Google and its control over Android: “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.”
Section 4.4 does sound extremely vague, but it’s not clear how Disconnect Mobile (even the app name is suggestive) works in accordance with the rules when it interferes with the rights of other apps to access information that the user consents to when he or she downloads an app. Something tells us that a violation (Disconnect Mobile) and a political move (on Google’s part) are at play here.
Microsoft is also cleaning up its own app store. The company just removed 1500 “fake” apps from its app store because they violated the new terms Microsoft has set into place for app approval. The new rules state that apps cannot possess a similar icon to those of other apps, and app titles must be clear and provide an accurate title for the purpose and function of the app.