Dear Google Play Review Team, Please Don’t Be Evil
An Open Letter to Google: Hit the Factory Reset Button on Your Relationship with Developers
You’re a developer, and you’ve been putting your heart and soul into an application because you love to code and you would like to show the world the fruits of your labor. You decide to pony up the $25 to register a Google Play Developer account and to work day and night to live up to the title.
You’ve finally got an acceptable build you can publish, so you compile the APK and upload it to Google’s Servers. Finally, you decide to hit publish, and your app goes live. Slowly, the app makes waves as users on social media websites and Android bloggers start to notice your work. You’re ecstatic! People love your work! Despite the occasional, unhelpful, undeserved 1 star review (everybody gets one) you’re satisfied with the public reception to your work. One day, however, you wake up to an e-mail from the Google Play Review Team:
“What happened? Why was my app removed?” Of course you write back to inquire why your app was removed. But again you receive a vague answer, all the while wondering why your app was taken down when you’re able to point out dozens, if not hundreds, of apps that also fail this vague clause in Google Play’s Content Policy.
Google Plays App Whack-a-Mole
Quite a few developers have had rather frustrating experiences dealing with their apps being taken down from the Play Store, and this past week in particular has seen many in the Android community outraged at Google’s removal of the popular open-source 4chan browser Clover. On January 17th, the application was suspended from the Google Play Store for being in “violation of the sexually explicit material provision of the Content Policy.” Now, it is true that on 4chan there is quite a lot of suggestive material (and some really suggestive material at that) which has gotten other 4chan apps in trouble in the past.
However, for a time it seemed that 4chan apps could comply with Google’s content policy provision on sexually explicit materials by removing all default links to not-safe-for-work image boards. Instead, the developers of these apps allowed you to browse the adult content by manually entering the board’s name. A year and a half has since passed from the initial culling of 4chan apps in the Fall of 2014, and now it seems like Google is playing whack-a-mole on certain apps for failing to meet its Content Policy.
What changed? According to the developer who filed an appeal:
See as requested in #124 and added in 22ace00 I added in two new default boards and shuffled all of them so that /g/ wasn’t always at the top. Clover requires hardcoding some boards because otherwise the board list is empty while Clover is waiting for the api response. This is only done when you launch Clover for the first time. So after that update instead of always having the following order: /g/, /v/, /a/, /co/, /int/, it randomized the order of these 7: /g/, /v/, /a/, /co/, /int/, /sp/, /tv/.
Clover automatically loads the first board in the board list on startup. Instead of always presenting /g/ first it presented one of these /g/, /v/, /a/, /co/, /int/, /sp/, /tv/ (because it was now shuffled). Now I did not put much thought in it, but /a/ isn’t the most sfw board there is, even when it’s a blue board. So there was a 1 in 7 change of /a/ winding up at the top of the board list and getting automatically loaded. And that was when the fun started. After uploading a new beta version this was probably the case and Clover got suspended. They denied my appeal with the following reason: “Your app depicts images of anime characters in sexually suggestive poses which is considered sexually explicit content.” So /a/ was indeed the culprit.
So basically, he was inadvertently linking his users to a board that featured adult content (even though the board itself is not dedicated to such content). As many of you may have heard, 4chan boards are unpredictable and the community there pretty much posts whatever they feel like discussing, and that includes not-safe-for-work content. Google’s stance here makes some sense — however, it was only after the developer appealed did we discover why it was pulled in the first place! Nevertheless, this is not a terribly big deal though it would be nice to not have to scratch your head in shock at why your work was taken down! Most developers would take the feedback and re-upload a version of the app that is compliant with the Content Policy, as the developer of Clover did:
Clover now has more safe boards as default and doesn’t automatically add any boards anymore. /a/ and some other boards are now marked as a nsfw boards, so you won’t even see a drop down for it.
Now you could say that every browser or reddit app should also be banned from the Play Store because you can browse nsfw material with them. But the problem is that Clover presented /a/ without any searching for nsfw material. It’s fine if you make the user search for nsfw material if they know the url/board code/subreddit name, but don’t present it without any action.
Even Google Play recommends just uploading a new version with another package name and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a shame that I can’t update the 260k current users to the new version, but I hope the word will spread of the new package name. I’ll give another update when I’ve uploaded it.
The nightmare doesn’t end there, however, because days after the developer re-uploaded a seemingly-compliant version of Clover to the Google Play Store, it was removed yet again. This time, however, Google removed the app because they “have determined that [his] app or app listing links the user to a website with pornographic or sexual content.” The developer was quite understandably upset by this reasoning, and has taken to exclusively posting his app to the main open-source repository hosted by F-Droid. So at least that ends one man’s struggle with The Man.
Because of the Implication
I hope you did a double-take when you read Google’s final decision regarding the removal of Clover, because I sure did. The removal of Clover based on the fact that 4chan merely has pornographic material somewhere on the website is quite concerning. What will happen to Reddit apps? NSFW content is restricted by default on most Reddit apps, but it’s certainly not difficult to merely stumble upon adult content on the website. The same goes for Twitter, Tumblr, Imgur, and many other websites too. Each of these websites have, or are about to release, official applications for “websites with pornographic or sexual content.”
“Many developers aren’t even sure why their app was taken down”
No matter how big or powerful you are, Google can remove your app at any time if they believe your app violates their Content Policy — which is good for fairness, but the standards are flawed in the first place.
“Welcome to life as a developer on the Play Store. There’s been quite a few controversies regarding their handling of apps and policies but not enough media attention for the public to care.” – Reddit user twigboy in response to Google pulling the Samsung-sponsored Adblock Fast application
Let’s clear up some things here first. Yes, Google is a private business that is allowed to pull content off of its platform for whatever reason they want. Yes, the Google Play Store has an unfathomable amount of apps to sort through and so it’s not surprising that their customer support here is a bit dry. However, neither of these reasons should excuse Google’s poor support for developers. Mobile app developers are already suffering from a wildly oversaturated app market. Why should Google further impose barriers on some developers by hanging over their heads with the ever-looming threat of their app being pulled?
They’ve already required developers to set content ratings on their apps, is that not enough? While I’m certain that Google is constantly at work trying to fine-tune whatever algorithm they use to automatically pull policy-violating apps (…it IS Google after all), it remains unfair to developers, whom many rely on their apps as a major source of income, to have to deal with an automated removal and appeal process. Since the Play Store has gotten so large, Google has neglected caring for its developers whom were so critical to the platform’s success.
Don’t Be Evil
We know that you’ve moved on from your “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google, but maybe you can change and “Do the Right Thing?” To be fair to Google, not every removal is vague and some mistakes are reversed. Most app removals are probably legitimate removals, but we only see and hear much about the ones that went wrong. And even some of these complaints are without merit, as a developer might claim unfair removal and leave out crucial information about the appeal when it’s clear the decision was in the right. However, if there’s at least one thing in common with all of these complains it’s the fact that many of them aren’t really sure why their app was taken down. Rather than merely quoting the section of the Content Policy that an app is believed to violate and leaving the developer on their own to figure out why their app was removed, why not just tell them? You’ll at least be able to avoid controversy stirred up on certain parts of the net, although you certainly can’t win them all.
The Android ecosystem thrives on a healthy balance of users, device manufacturers, and developers. This is the core philosophy underlying the Compatibility Program laid out by Google. When developers speak up and ask for better customer support, who is listening? Consistency, transparency, and swiftness in handling developer requests are something we would all benefit from, as more developers will feel free to devote their time to developing on Google’s platform without fearing the banhammer. Perhaps it’s not a big priority for Google to fix, but we certainly hope that as more attention is drawn to the issue that developer’s voices will be heard.