Google’s automated Play Store policy enforcement just killed a popular open source app

Google has an unbelievably huge number of apps to manage, deciding quickly if they’re okay to go on the Play Store or if they violate Google’s policies. The algorithms Google uses for this generally do a good job at spreading the wheat from the chaff, but nevertheless, innocent apps get caught up in the automated process all too often, and that’s where the company’s process utterly fails. Appeals are rarely granted, and it’s barely ever clear what exactly developers need to do to get their apps through the review process.

The latest app to be caught in the moderation purgatory is FairEmail, one of our favorite open source Gmail alternatives and installed over 500,000 from the Play Store, and the developer is so fed up with Google’s handling of the situation that he has decided to quit all of his apps altogether.

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The Play Store policy issue

As spotted by Caschys Blog, Google recently flagged FairEmail as spyware because it is presumably uploading contact lists from phones, with Google supposedly giving out no details as to what exactly the problem is. Developer M66B, as he calls himself on the XDA Forums and Github, believes that the Play Store could take issue with FairEmail’s automated favicon service, which only uses the domain info from email addresses to create fitting icons for senders and addressees.

However, based on previous comments in the XDA thread, it’s clear that the developer tried to add optional Gravatar and Libravatar integration in earlier versions of the app that Google did not accept. Both services are uploading email addresses to their servers in order to match them with existing profile pictures attached to these email addresses, so the use of these would have to be indicated in the app’s privacy policy. From what we can gather, this never happened.

Google’s wording on the issue is very poor, though. The company indicates that the app is lacking a privacy policy altogether, which is not the case — the app has had a privacy policy for a long time. However, it’s more than likely that Google took issue with the lack of a mention of Gravatar and Libravatar in the privacy policy (which the automated text from the company tried to make clear). Meanwhile, the developer stubbornly maintained that he had a privacy policy in place already, leading to a deadlock he could only lose.

It’s more than likely that Gravatar and Libravatar caused the initial problems in the certification process, though it’s unclear which issue Google is taking now that the developer has removed these services. We’ve said it before, and we need to say it again, Google absolutely needs to step up communication with developers and provide them with helpful, workable suggestions, and not give out blanket statements that end up contradicting themselves or suggest that a privacy policy is missing altogether when it’s not, leading to misunderstandings like these.

The consequences of the Play Store woes

A big problem the developer now faces is the fact that 98 to 99% of his downloads are coming from the Play Store, so he is essentially forced to try to work around or with Google’s unclear demands and draconic measures if he wants to retain his community . A move to a Github-only or F-Droid-only project would make him lose out on the bigger part of the audience, and thus potential revenue coming in from the paid Pro version of the app.

Despite M66B’s work on getting an approved version back onto the Play Store, he is generally fed up with the way Google handles communication and is ready to give up the app altogether. He has already archived the FairEmail Github repository and set it to read-only, saying that Google’s behavior is the core problem, as “there is no sensible way to appeal in case of bad reviews or alleged violations of Play store policies.” He has also stopped distributing his other apps on the Play Store and archived the corresponding Github projects.

On top of the issues with the Play Store, the developer cites personal reasons and a general lack of appreciation for the free work he is doing, which also includes free support and managing community feature requests, with comparatively little money coming in from donations and the Pro version. It’s clear that the removal from the Play Store is just the last straw breaking the camel’s back.

FairEmail is currently still available on F-Droid and Github. People who have purchased the Pro version from Google Play will be able to continue using it, as stated on the project’s website. Critical bug fixes might also still happen. The developer additionally makes clear that the app will keep working for the foreseeable future since it doesn’t depend on any cloud services from the developer himself. If he truly sticks to not furthering development, it will simply not receive new features or design updates.


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