How Google Play “Terminated” a Developer for No Reason

Open letter from an Android developer to the Google Play team and the community of Android developers and users

Tokata
Aug 17 · 10 min read

Version française

The Play Store will terminate you.

Short version

  • I’m a software developer since 1995 and Android developer since 2011. My independent software business Tokata created 8 mobile applications (including Jimi Guitar, Cozmic Zoom, Star Words, Safe Play) totaling millions of downloads, mainly on Google Play Store.
  • On July 31, 2019, I received a mail from Google Play informing me that my app Star Words was removed because of an alleged “malicious behavior”. Shortly after, another mail announced that my developer account was terminated. All my apps were deleted, and I was forbidden to publish new ones.
  • Since then, I’m desperately trying to find out what “malicious behavior” am I accused of by Google, or rather its robots, because I only received automatic messages, and so far all my attempts to appeal and requests for information were rejected.
  • My request is simple: Google Play, please either tell me specifically what the problem is, so that I can fix it, or else reinstate my developer account and my applications.
  • I develop software not just for fun but also primarily for a living. This sentence not only deprives me of a substantial part of income, but it also forbids me for life to continue my work which is also my passion.
  • It seems that I’m not the only one in this situation. Many Android developers have seen their apps removed and their accounts abruptly terminated by the Google Play bots, often for minor and unintentional reasons, or even for no known reason at all, and almost always without any opportunity to prove their good faith, receiving no other response than automatic messages.
  • I would like to stress that I fully understand the need for Google to clean the Play Store from truly malicious apps, including using bots. I even personally think that the cleaning could be more severe. However, this should never be at the expense of legitimate developers of good faith, who are doing their best to respect the users and policies of the Google Play Store.

Long version

When, in 2011, I left my post as software engineer to start working as independent developer of mobile applications, Apple’s iOS platform dominated the market, and Google’s Android was the challenger. Yet I chose Android to create my first apps. I had read stories about the terrifying Apple’s “kill switch” that could wipe out apps without further ado, and I thought naively that such a thing could not happen on Android, given the “developer friendly” reputation of Google. Big mistake.

My first Android book (no joke). I should have seen it coming.

My first application Jimi Guitar has had some success, and the inevitable happened, a cracked version began to circulate, firstly on the Chinese market, and then everywhere else. Although flattered by such an tribute, I nonetheless decided to include a more sophisticated anti-piracy system in the next versions of my apps. As advised by the Google engineers encouraging to be creative (see Securing Android LVL Applications), I used custom techniques including dynamic bytecode loading from a local app resource.

This protection has proven effective against piracy for several years. However, in 2017, several users reported me that their antivirus app (F-Secure) blocked my Star Words and Cozmic Zoom apps. Could it be related to my anti-piracy system? I do not know, but I rapidly contacted the F-Secure support to inform them of these false positives, and two days later (Google, please note), my apps and my developer signature were marked as clean by the antivirus software.

Some of my apps (Jimi Tutor, Star Words, Jimi Guitar, Cozmic Zoom).

On June 8, 2018, I received a mail from the Google Play team informing me that my application Cozmic Zoom Lite had been removed because of a “device and network abuse”. Having no idea of what I was accused of, I appealed that decision and asked for more information. The appeal was rejected, however I was allowed to publish a new version (with a different name and zeroing my downloads) and informed that the problem may be related to a YouTube access. Actually the app contained a few scientific videos (mainly from the public domain, or else with a permission from the authors), displayed with the official YouTube API. Having read through the API terms of service, I couldn’t deduce how my app infringed them. Maybe it was the popups that I displayed at the beginning of the videos to credit the authors? I was not certain, and didn’t want to take any risks (the mail was threatening to terminate my account) so I published a new version without YouTube, hosting the videos on my own server.

I was quietly continuing my developer activity, between user support for my mainstream apps and the development of a new ambitious project of mobile apps aimed at professionals. But on July 31, 2019, a new mail from the Google Play team told me that my Star Words app was removed because of an alleged “malicious behavior”, followed by the fatal message informing me that my developer account was terminated.

Me after receiving Google Play’s mail.

I had already read stories about developers having their accounts terminated, but I just thought that in my case, having done nothing wrong, it would be easy to demonstrate my good faith. Hoping that this new false positive problem would be solved quickly, I immediately appealed. Alas, so far, my appeals have run into a wall, and what is worse, after having read backwards and forwards through the “malicious behavior” policies, I still don’t know the case against me. Did my anti-piracy system triggered Google’s new “Play Protect” antivirus? Or is it something else? I do not know, and the Google robots are deaf and mute.

Two alleged infringements in eight years of development, this is what Google Play calls “multiple violations of the policies”, and this is how a career as Android developer is ended overnight for no reason.

During these 8 years of mobile development, I published many app updates, not only on Google Play, but also on iOS, Amazon Appstore, and many others. It could happen sometimes that an update was rejected, for whatever reasons (and believe me, in any substantial app, issues can occur). The technical support of these different app stores then told me precisely what was the problem, after which I could submit a corrected version. In the worst case, some dialog with the support was necessary, but every time, the update was finally published. This is the normal operation between a developer and a support team, and this is how most app stores work. But not Google Play.

Dear users, if you have used and enjoyed my applications, I appeal to you today to share this letter. Even if for most of you, apps are mere trivial toys that pop up (and die out) with a tap on your phone, in the background there are real people who spent days and nights to provide you with these few minutes of fun.

Dear fellow developers, I wish that this letter, setting myself aside, helps to advance the cause of a healthier relationship between the developers and the first app store in the world. If you purchased an Android developer account, if you carefully followed the rules, if you made every effort to produce safe quality apps, you still need to know that you’re not immune to an unjustified ban. It is not possible to work seriously in these conditions. In case of technical or legal issue, we must know exactly what it is about, and have the possibility to correct it. Let us send this message to the Google Play team @GooglePlayDev.

Dear Google Play team, I think that a platform such as Android needs confidence. It needs users’ confidence in the system, by the guarantee of a safe environment protected against malicious applications. But it also needs the confidence of developers, who need a minimum of serenity in order to be able to invest seriously in the development of applications that are the strength of Android, without the fear of losing everything overnight. Dear Google Play, please do the right thing to restore this confidence.

Patrick Godeau
Developer
@TokataSoft


Update (August 20, 2019)

The good news — My account was reinstated today. It seems that this letter was read by human eyes after all. Many thanks to everyone who made this possible: dear users, fellow developers, Google employees.

The not-so-good news — I still don’t know what caused my apps to be removed in the first place. So I won’t republish them just to be banned again. I’ll try to learn more, which means that I’ll have to try to contact Google again… The story continues…

Update (August 23, 2019)

Still no answer about why my apps were removed… To respond to my customers’ requests, I’ve decided to republish them.

Update (August 27, 2019)

The good news — 4 days after I republished my apps, they are finally back again on the Play Store. Enjoy:

The not-so-good news — A last email from Google confirms that they won’t tell me the reason of my ban.


Annex — Google Play’s mails

2019–07–31

Hi Developers at Tokata,

After review, Star Words, fr.tokata.scroll_words, has been suspended and removed from Google Play as a policy strike because it violates the malicious behavior policy.

Next Steps

Read through the Malicious Behavior policy for more details and examples of policy violations.
Make sure your app is compliant with all policies listed in the Developer Program Policies. Remember additional enforcement could occur if there are further policy issues with your apps.
If it’s possible to bring your app into compliance, you can sign in to your Play Console and submit the policy compliant app using a new package name and a new app name.

Additional suspensions of any nature may 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’ve reviewed the policy and feel this suspension may have been in error, please reach out to our policy support team. One of my colleagues will get back to you within 2 business days.

Regards,

The Google Play Review Team

2019–07–31

This is a notification that your Google Play Publisher account has been terminated.

REASON FOR TERMINATION: Violations of the Developer Program Policies and Developer Distribution Agreement.

Google Play Publisher terminations are associated with developers, and may span multiple account registrations and related Google services.

You can visit the Developer Policy Center to better understand how we enforce Developer Program Policies. If you’ve reviewed the policy and feel this termination may have been in error, please reach out to our policy support team.

Please do not attempt to register a new developer account. We will not be restoring your account at this time.

The Google Play Team

2019–08–01

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for contacting the Google Play Team.

After review of your appeal, we’re unable to reinstate your developer account.

Your Google Play Developer account has been terminated due to multiple violations of the Developer Program Policies. We’ve reviewed and confirmed this association.

Google Play Developer account terminations are associated with developers and may span multiple account registrations and related Google services. Do not attempt to register a new developer account. Any new accounts will be closed and your developer registration fee will not be refunded. We recommend that you use an alternative method for distributing your apps in the future.

Thank you for your understanding.
Regards,
Mike
The Google Play Team

2019–08–05

Hi Patrick,
Thanks again for contacting Google Play Developer Support.

As much as I’d like to help, I’m not able to provide any more information or a better answer to your question. In our previous email, I made sure to include all the information available to me.

If you have a different question about the Play Developer Console, please let me know.

2019–08–20

Hi Patrick,
Just wanted to get back to you in regards to your developer account.
After further review, we’ve accepted your appeal and reinstated your account. You’ll need to sign in to your Play Console to modify and/or republish any reinstated apps to make them available on Google Play.
If the option to resubmit is not available, please try making a small change to your app’s Store Listing page. For example, you can add and remove a space at the end of your app description.
Before republishing your apps, you might want to review the Developer Program Policies for additional policy guidance. Keep in mind that any new policy violations may result in your account’s permanent termination from Google Play.
Please let me know if you have any other questions.
Regards,
Jane

2019–08–27

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for contacting the Google Play Team.

Good news — I see your app, Star Words(fr.tokata.scroll_words), was resubmitted earlier and has been approved.

Also, please be informed that unfortunately we were not able to provided further information regarding the reason of the previous suspension and ban.

Thank you for your understanding and continued support of Google Play.

Regards,
Irene
The Google Play Team

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