Google under fire for banning privacy app from Play Store

Privacy app maker Disconnect has blasted Google's attitude to user's data security after having one of its newest creations banned from the search giant's Play Store.

The company's Disconnect Mobile app was removed from the Google Play Store on Tuesday, just five days after release, over claims it violated a single term in the vendor's Developer Distribution Agreement.

The contentious app is designed to safeguard users' privacy by preventing other apps installed on the person's device from collecting data about them.

According to Google, this constitutes a breach of the term 4.4 in its Developer Distribution Agreement, which states that developers must not create products with the potential to interfere with the running of third-party properties.

"You will not engage in any activity with the Market, including the development and distribution of products, that interferes with, disrupts, damages or accesses in any unauthorised 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," it states.

In a blog post, alerting users to the app's ban, the Disconnect team hit out the broad phrasing of Google's Developer Distribution Agreement, claiming it paves the way for the firm to ban almost any app in the Play Store.

"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 violation," the post states.

"With terms like this, Google can ban any app for no good reason."

The team reportedly had an earlier version of the product blocked from the Play Store in 2013 following a U-turn by Google on its policies about using localhost proxies.

The Android app it was in the throes of developing relied on one, which meant returning to the drawing board.

"Because of that experience, we took every precaution with our new app not to utilise any technology that wasn't clearly documented and actively supported by Google," the post continues.

"The banned app utilises the VpnService API that has been made publicly available by Google since at least 2011. Thousands of other applications utilise the same API. So why were we targeted and why didn't Google provide an explanation?"

The post then goes on to speculate the app's actions may have posed a threat to Google's advertising models, which is why it was canned.

"We may never know Google's true motivation for removing our app, [but] it seems likely that they determined it threatened their tracking and advertising-based business model, which accounts for over 90 per cent of Google's $66 billion in estimated 2014 annual revenue," it adds.

The company is in the throes of appealing against Google's decision, in the hope of getting the app eventually reinstated in the Play Store, but is also urging potential users to seek out other means of downloading it.

"Google has way too much power over distribution of applications on Android and can kill applications at will without justification," the blog reads.

"This is why efforts to create alternative Android-based platforms that respect user privacy... are so important for the future of the increasingly Android-based internet."

IT Pro contacted Google for comment on this story and was told, while it doesn't comment on individual cases, its "policies are designed to provide a great experience for users and developers. That's why we remove apps from Google Play that violate those policies."

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.