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This is how Google kills your app

Josh Liptzin
Oct 24, 2014 · 6 min read

TL;DR The downside of having no app store approval process is that Google will kill your app without warning and you’ll have very little recourse.

If you’re an app developer, the “Notification from Google Play” email is guaranteed to put a pit in your stomach. If you’ve never gotten one, here’s how it goes:

This is a notification that your application, XXXXX, with package ID YYYYY, has been removed from the Google Play Store.

It then proceeds to cite the reason for the removal. In our case, it was due to sexually explicit material uploaded by our users (the app in question is a dating app):

REASON FOR REMOVAL: Violation of the sexually explicit material provision of the Content Policy. Please refer to the Sex and Nudity policy help article for more information.

It then tells you your options along with some details about the policy:

This particular app has been disabled as a policy strike. If your developer account is still in good standing, you may revise and upload a policy compliant version of this application as a new package name.

This notification also serves as notice for remaining, unsuspended violations in your catalog, and you may avoid further app suspensions by immediately unpublishing any apps in violation of (but not limited to) the above policy. Once you have resolved any existing violations, you may republish the app(s) at will. Before publishing applications, please ensure your apps’ compliance with the Developer Distribution Agreement and Content Policy.

All violations are tracked. Serious or repeated violations of any nature will result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts. If your account is terminated, payments will cease and Google may recover the proceeds of any past sales and/or the cost of any associated fees (such as chargebacks and transaction fees) from you.

If you feel we have made this determination in error, you can visit the Google Play Help Center article for additional information regarding this removal.

The Google Play Team

This is actually the second time we’ve been through this process. Both takedowns occurred without prior warning. Our issue in both cases is that our users sometimes upload nude photos, and nudity is not allowed on applications published to Google Play.

Of course, there’s no algorithm to detect nudity accurately, so we employ a staff of moderators in addition to a third party moderation service in order to quickly remove nudity once it gets uploaded, often within 5 minutes. All that is in addition to standard flagging controls we attach to all content.

But none of that matters, and Google won’t tell us why. Here’s my response (you only get one, and it must be less than 1,000 characters):

We are very saddened to have been removed from Google Play. We actually went through this process a few months ago. On our last appeal, we had an internal Google Director personally review our case and the Play team found that we had indeed taken sufficient measures to deal with any inappropriate user generated content swiftly. To reiterate our process, we employ a staff of full time moderators who are constantly reviewing new photos that get uploaded to our service around the clock. All inappropriate imagery is removed within a few hours at most of its initial submission. In the rare event that a backlog of new images develops, we automatically fall back to WebPurify, a third party image moderation service. If you could please share with us the specific imagery you found that was in violation, then perhaps we can adjust the criteria for our moderation team in order to be in full compliance once again. There was no notice at all prior to our removal. Thank you!

In a dream world, we’d get a response like the following:

Dear Josh,

We realize moderating user generated content is a challenging task, especially for a small team like yours. During our review of your app, we found this objectionable material [attached]. These images clearly depict nudity and are in violation of our sexually explicit content provision. Please explain why these have not yet been removed from your application and what steps you will take to fortify your app so that this does not happen again in the future.

Regards,

The Google Play Team

However, we’re not sure what they saw. We’ve built a pretty solid screening process and blatant nudity rarely goes unnoticed. Maybe someone’s pants were too low, or a bathing suit too tight, or maybe someone had a carrot in their mouth. It’s impossible to know. Maybe a response along these lines could help our moderators screen content in a way that is more acceptable to Google?

Dear Josh,

In our recent review of your application, we found the following images [attached] which are sexually suggestive, though do not contain any actual nudity. Please be advised that images depicting [tight bathing suits|pants below the waist|whipped cream] are in violation of our sexually explicit content provision even though they do not technically contain nudity. For this reason we have removed your application from Google Play, however we will allow you to submit an appeal once we have confirmed that the objectionable content has been removed.

Regards,

The Google Play Team

Instead, we received the friendly boilerplate email below:

Hi,

We have reviewed your appeal and will not be reinstating your app. This decision is final and we will not be responding to any additional emails regarding this removal.

If your account is still in good standing and the nature of your app allows for republishing you may consider releasing a new, policy compliant version of your app to Google Play under a new package name. We are unable to comment further on the specific policy basis for this removal or provide guidance on bringing future versions of your app into policy compliance. Instead, please reference the REASON FOR REMOVAL in the initial notification email from Google Play.

Please note that additional violations may result in a suspension of your Google Play Developer account.

Regards, The Google Play Team

Astute readers will notice that the app is not actually banned from Google Play. Since our account is still in good standing, we’re allowed to release a new app under a different package name, but that means all reviews will be erased, and the download count will be reset. Existing users can still use the old app, but they won’t receive updates until they download the one with the new package name.

But this seems like a strange way to approach the issue.

First, we have no idea what content caused us to be removed in the first place, and they won’t tell us. Our moderation team has been hard at work, and they’re going to continue doing their job in the same way. So, we’ll just continue to resubmit an exact copy of our current app, since it’s the network, not the app, that’s in violation. What’s the definition of insanity again?

Second, if the app isn’t permanently banned and can be immediately resubmitted, how does deleting all reviews help anybody? Surely the Google Play users who spent time writing those reviews wouldn’t appreciate them being removed wholesale, not to mention potential new users who might find those reviews helpful.

Third, orphaning all existing users of the application definitely doesn’t help anybody. They’re bound to eventually be confused about why they’re left out of all future app updates, with no advertised features or bug fixes hitting their version.

Like many other developers, we also have an equivalent app on iOS. In the past, I naively sang praise over the lack of a formal app review process on Google Play that iOS employs. After all, it’s so annoying to have to wait a whole week just to add a small feature! It’s so nice to just push out app updates that go live within a few hours.

But this is the downside. Since all new apps are automatically approved, Google has to be swift about removing apps that turn out to be a violation of their TOS. And when that happens, good luck finding an ear that will listen. I’d much rather have a formal review process, with a human being on the other end I can speak with if an issue comes up, rather than running around like an ant hoping I don’t suddenly get stepped on.

PS Google, your search engine currently indexes a large amount of pornography. You should probably get on that.

    Josh Liptzin

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