A Look at the Telegram+ Situation

A Look at the Telegram+ Situation

Most of this article doesn’t only apply to Telegram+ — it just happens to be an example that got a lot of coverage elsewhere, with many authors or commentators putting the full blame on Google, Telegram, the Telegram+ developer or even WhatsApp Inc (eh?).

In this article, we’ll try to look at the different aspects to provide a clear view of what actually happened, and what can (and hopefully will) improve with regards to developers in general and the Play Store.

Telegram+ & Play Store Policies

The Play Store has some policies developers need to follow. Google actually does a pretty good job at explaining them, by providing an easily accessible guide with examples, written in plain English. For reference, you can find it here.

It’s also worth noting that developers are asked to read those quite clearly before uploading apps to the Play Store. The policies are in no way hidden away from view.

Telegram+ is a modified Telegram client, made by the developer of the now defunct WhatsApp+. What happened to it? It got pulled from the Play Store. The reason, as posted on the official Google+ community (sic):

Google has decided to remove Telegram+ from Play Store

The reasons the give are ‘Violation of the intellectual property and
impersonation or deceptive behavior’

I asked for more details as the reason are too generic

Now they say they need verifiable documentation that my application is
authorized

I’m trying to solve it contacting again with Telegram

If we look at the Google Play Developer Program Policies, these are the sections being referred to:

Impersonation or Deceptive Behavior: Don’t pretend to be someone else, and don’t represent that your app is authorized by or produced by another company or organization if that is not the case. Products or the ads they contain also must not mimic functionality or warnings from the operating system or other apps. Products must not contain false or misleading information in any content, title, icon, description, or screenshots.
Developers must not divert users or provide links to any other site that mimics or passes itself off as another app or service. Apps must not have names or icons that appear confusingly similar to existing products, or to apps supplied with the device (such as Camera, Gallery or Messaging).

Intellectual Property: Don’t infringe on the intellectual property rights of others, (including patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright, and other proprietary rights), or encourage or induce infringement of intellectual property rights. We will respond to clear notices of alleged copyright infringement. For more information or to file a DMCA request, please visit our copyright procedures.

What do we understand from this? The second paragraph would mostly refer to the name alone, since Telegram is open source and released under the GPLv2+. The first paragraph highlights some other potential issues with Telegram+:

  • «Don’t pretend to be someone else»

The Telegram+ description used the original description without making it clear that it’s a separate product, which might have made it sound like it’s an official product by Telegram Messenger LLP.

  • «Products must not contain false or misleading information in any content, title, icon, description, or screenshots.»

Same as above.

  • «Developers must not divert users or provide links to any other site that mimics or passes itself off as another app or service.»

Same as above. The Telegram+ description, by including the original description, also pulled the official Telegram support email.

  • «Apps must not have names or icons that appear confusingly similar to existing products, or to apps supplied with the device (such as Camera, Gallery or Messaging).»

Telegram+ sounds confusingly similar to existing products — that is, Telegram.

To make this even clearer, take a look at parts of the official Telegram description on the Play store. It is worded in such a way that would make copying and pasting it seem as if the app is an official version of Telegram (emphasis added):

Be sure to check our website for a list of Telegram apps for all platforms.

We built Telegram to make messaging speedy and safe again, without the usual caveats.

SUPPORT: […] You can also email us at [email protected].

«The Play store policies are written in legalese, though! Certainly no developer is truly expected to read and respect all that?»

Well, they are. However, you can’t ignore legalities just because you made something nice (even if you don’t use the Google Play store — Google just enforces these rules with an iron fist). That being said, developers don’t have to read legalese! As we’ve mentioned earlier, a neat guide written in plain English and provided with many examples is provided. Let’s take a look at the Impersonation page, this piece in particular:

Don’t use another app’s branding— Don’t use another product, person, or company name in your app title or description if you have not been given express permission to do so, as this may give the impression that your app is officially sponsored when it is not.

What this effectively means is that you can’t use the Telegram branding in an ambiguous manner (that is, not the “AppName for Telegram” format), unless you have formal permission from the company.

The image examples also paint a clear and appropriate example:

Play Store Policy

Play Store Policy

The most important lesson to learn here is to always read the terms and conditions you’re agreeing to, and do your best to respect them if you plan to use a service. “Their house, their rules.”

(We’ve actually covered a lot of this in a previous article, Google Play Store Policies and Common Mistakes to Avoid. If you’re a starting developer, consider giving it a read.)

Open API, Open Source, and the GPL

«But Telegram has an open API! What’s wrong with a third party app?!»

Not much, usually. Some companies may put restrictions and recommendations you’re supposed to follow if you intend to use their APIs, and ignoring them can result in the key you use to access the API getting banned.

«Telegram is open source, though! What’s wrong with a third party app based on that source?!»

That depends. Contrary to popular belief, open source doesn’t always mean “you’re free to use this”. Legally, you may not be able to modify it at all (look but don’t touch), modify it for non commercial purposes, modify it as long as you make the source code publicly available, etc. It all depends on the license, an agreement of sorts for using the source code.

(Illegally, you can do whatever you want and face the consequences. We’re not discussing that.)

Telegram is actually licensed under the GPLv2+. This basically means you’re free to do pretty much whatever you want with the source code, as long as you make it available to anyone who asks (you can make it public accessible for everyone, or include a written offer to make the source code available any user who requests it). As far as we’re aware, Telegram+ did not include such an offer, nor did it make its source code available (in fact, the “OPEN SOURCE” section of the original Telegram description was removed entirely).

Google’s “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later” Approach

Last but not least, we arrive at Google’s approach when it comes to handling potential violations. It nukes them. Unfortunately, reinstating (potentially) violating apps when there actually are no violations (or after the mistake is corrected) is rather hard.

Instead, you’re usually supposed to correct the issues and submit the new version as a separate package. This means previous users will no longer receive updates, nor will they be notified about the new package.

While warning developers and giving them some time to fix issues (or even providing human support for every offender) may not be feasible, this is definitely one of the bigger issues for developers on the Play store.

(A common complaint is that policies are inconsistently applied. This does not excuse apps that break them, but it is a valid, separate point.)

Let’s take this case as an example. Suppose Telegram+ didn’t include the original Telegram description in its Play store description. Also assume that it obtained formal permission from Telegram Messenger LLP to use the Telegram+ name, and made the source code available. Those are a lot of assumptions, but even though everything would’ve been correct in this theoretical scenario, it likely would’ve still been pulled. Pull first, let developers try to appeal later.

We definitely hope that recent claims about Google starting to review and reject apps and updates before them being made publicly available are true, and a step in the right direction.

About author

GermainZ
GermainZ

Currently studying for a Master's degree in Computer Science at EPFL, Germain Z. is interested in all things related to technology, mobiles and programming. Previously, he was also a Forum Moderator and Recognized Developer on the XDA forums.