On Abhorrent Ad Practices in Android Apps and Empowering the User

On Abhorrent Ad Practices in Android Apps and Empowering the User

As an internet-reliant society, we are no stranger to ads. Advertisements are used in apps as a way for the developer or service-producer to make money so that they can continue developing and improving their current applications, as well as create new ones.

Of course, there is always the option to create a paid version, where for only a few dollars the user can skip the annoying ad experience and still support the developer’s work. Mobile devices in general seem to be plagued with ads in various forms which adversely affects the Android experience. Carrier apps, lockscreen replacements (that seem to sneak into updates, such as Next Browser, which added a lockscreen replacement plagued with ads in a recent update), and the once-much-respected ES File Explorer, which had the same thing, but removed that specific adware in a recent update.

In fact, Apps2SD and Xender introduced a lockscreen-replacement with ads in a recent update as well. With Xender though, you can turn off the ads in the settings. There could be an issue with the ad provider for these apps, but that is just speculation on my part. Perhaps the Reddit complaints and poor reviews left on some of these apps from users could cause these developers to take action.

The point still stands though that we don’t need additional ads and malware infecting every part of our device, from the lockscreen to the notification bar. It just makes Android look tacky, and unfortunately cheapens the experience for the average user. Not everyone understands where these ads are coming from, or how to get rid of them. I had two customers recently that claimed different issues with their devices, but the solution was the same: uninstalling the plethora of “cleaner” and “booster” apps on their devices. Now, in these cases, the people are installing these apps themselves, but they don’t understand why they are malicious. The average consumer is convinced of the app’s claims that it improves their device, and if there is a problem, assume it is because of some other issue.

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Rest in peace

Users should be educated enough to make their own decisions about what they download. And Google does have policies in place to try and prevent this type of thing. In fact, Google’s Developer Policy Center states that:

Ads associated with your app must not interfere with other apps, ads, or the operation of the device, including system or device buttons and ports. This includes overlays, companion functionality, or widgetized ad units. Ads must only be displayed within the app serving them.

In spite of this, the aforementioned apps, along with others, are directly violating this policy. The apps that I mentioned above added these malicious tendencies in recent updates, so it is possible that the backlash will cause the developers to remove the ads in the future (hopefully).

But the fact remains that everyday, more apps are getting these malicious ads in recent updates, or they were like that from the beginning. Why is it allowed? There could be several reasons why, but probably the most obvious one is that it’s impossible to regulate every single application on the Google Play Store. Users do need a certain level of education when downloading, even with the safeguards that Google has in place. The booster and cleaner apps don’t really harm the device itself on the surface, but it could cause users an increase in data charges, or like I mentioned earlier regarding those customers, problems with device performance. The potential issue with the ad provider being the culprit is still valid,  but developers that are interested in upholding their reputation would be checking reviews and the app itself periodically.

There is always the inevitable “but iPhones don’t have these kinds of problems!”… For one, it is much more of a process to become an iOS developer, and you need to purchase a license to place your app on the App Store. That may work to weed out some of the riff raff, but don’t get me wrong, malicious apps have made it onto the App Store as well. One thing about the App Store though, is many useful apps are paid. There are free ones, sure, but perhaps if more people saw the value in paying for an app, the Play Store could be filled with more paid, but ad-free offerings. One of the ways that I’ve seen coworkers compare Android to iPhone when talking to an on-the-fence customer is saying that Android has way more free apps. And while that’s probably not the best way to sell one operating system over another, it works because the customer sees it as “if I buy Android, I don’t have to pay for as many (or any) apps!”

That could be a discussion for another time, but it is worth noting that some of the apps I mentioned earlier, like ES File Explorer, have a paid version without ads. Whether it is ethical to make the free version borderline complete with rule-breaking adware is another thing, though. The long and short of it though is that in general, anyone who owns a computer or smart device, whether they are an enthusiast or not should be aware of what they are downloading. The recent updates to Android, like Marshmallow’s permissions, are working toward that goal, but as with anything, education is key.

The question is, how can we make sure users know what they are downloading, and how can these rules be enforces thoroughly? Join the discussion below, and tell us what you think!

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