Blocking Consumer Choice: Google's Dangerous Ban of Privacy and Security App
As reported last week in the Wall Street Journal, Google has banned the privacy and security app Disconnect Mobile from the play store. By doing so, Google has shown once again that it cares more about allowing third-parties to monetize the tracking of its users than about allowing those users to ensure their own security and privacy. The banned app, Disconnect Mobile, is designed to stop non-consensual third party trackers on Android (much like EFF's Privacy Badger does in Firefox or Chrome). Disconnect released their app in the Android Play Store and Apple's App Store a little over a week ago. Google removed the app just five days after it was released, citing Section 4.4 of the Play Store developer distribution agreement.1 This section states that developers agree not to use the Play Store to distribute apps that interfere with or disrupt the services of any third party.
On its face this may seem like a reasonable rule―it would block DDOS tools from the Play Store, for example―but on further inspection it's obvious that this rule is overly vague, allowing Google to be selective in its enforcement. After all, any antivirus app or firewall could be considered to be violating these terms of service, since they would interfere with the services of a (malicious) third-party. Yet firewall and antivirus apps abound in the Play Store. Clearly enforcement of this clause is selective.
So why is Disconnect Mobile being targeted? This question seems especially puzzling given that Disconnect’s goal—blocking non-consensual third-party trackers—is as virtuous as the goals of any antivirus or firewall app. After all, who would want shadowy services collecting their browsing habits across the Internet without their consent? An app that blocks trackers like this seems like it would be a great thing to have in the Play Store, especially when you consider that the trackers it blocks can be used for nefarious goals such as spreading malware and spying on civilians. Simply put, technologies such as Disconnect and Privacy Badger are important for the security and privacy of end users. They are also incredibly popular―within days of being in the Apple App store Disconnect is already the number one utility app.
So again, why is Disconnect Mobile being targeted? The problem lies in the fact that many online advertisers participate in this sneaky tracking in order to build up reading profiles of users for marketing purposes, whether users have opted in or not. As a result, Disconnect Mobile blocks these types of ads—even though ad-blocking is incidental to its primary goal. Because of this, Google has deemed Disconnect Mobile to be “interfering” with these sneaky third-party services—services its users don’t want. In other words, Google appears to be interpreting its rules to mean that "apps that interfere with Google's business model" will be banned, rather than "apps that interfere with user security and privacy." By removing this app from the Play Store Google is putting its users at risk and sending the message that it cares more about its bottom line than its users' security.2
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Google has decided to prioritize third-party ad services over its users’ privacy. Just last year Google removed a similar application, Adblock Plus, from the app store for the same reasons it cites now. By removing these applications, we believe that Google is setting a dangerous precedent. The profits of Google's business partners should never come before the security and privacy of its users.
Fortunately, this doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Google could easily re-write their policy to allow apps in the Play Store that, at the direction of Android users, block third-party tracking systems while still allowing advertisements that respect user's privacy preferences. We strongly encourage Google to make this change―otherwise their users will start to migrate to app distribution platforms that support privacy and freedom, and Google could see its well of ad revenues start to run dry.
- 1. The iOS version remains available in Apple’s App Store.
- 2. We should point out that you can still sideload apps like Disconnect Mobile on to your phone even if they’re not in the Play Store. While we applaud the fact that Google allows sideloaded apps on Android, the fact remains that most users do not know how to sideload applications. Sideloading is also a significantly more time-consuming process, and sideloaded apps also do not benefit from being automatically updated, causing security problems if users are not getting patched software. In light of this, sideloading is obviously not an adequate solution.