When the privacy app Disconnect, designed to let consumers control what information other apps can access, was kicked out of the Play store last week, Google charged it with unauthorized interference with other apps, a violation of Google’s developer agreement.
From Google’s perspective, Disconnect damages the functionality and health of other apps in the Play store by impacting their monetization models and therefore the livelihood of developers.
It comes down to one core question: Could Disconnect mess with the monetization efforts of other apps?
“We are not an ad blocker,” said Gus Warren, one of Disconnect’s founding members.
Yet, most app developers integrate ad network SDKs and depend on advertising as their sole source of revenue. Those SDKs are typically built to be nonintrusive to the user. When an SDK isn’t able to reach a server, “it will fail gracefully so ads are never shown,” explained David Zhao, CEO of Voxel, a company known for developing interactive try-it-before-you-buy-it app ads.
“An ad blocker like Disconnect has the capability to block any and all network requests to the ad server, preventing the app from displaying any ads,” he said.
While Disconnect, which runs in a phone’s background, was designed as a privacy and security product, not as an ad blocker, it does in fact block some ad content – but Warren said that’s only inevitable.
“Disconnect blocks invisible tracking and malware distribution, some of which comes through advertising,” Warren said. “If tracking could be separated from advertising, then we would just block the tracking. The same would be true if malware could be stripped from advertising; then, we would just block the malware.”
Google isn’t saying much about the incident, other than to note: “While we don’t comment on specific apps, we can confirm that our 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.”
Voxel’s Zhao sees Google’s point.
“[Google doesn’t] want an app to interfere with the network requests from other apps,” he said. “The lines become blurry when a single app has the capability of altering and blocking arbitrary network requests from another. For example, what would happen when Disconnect miscategorizes a critical service as an ‘invasive ad network?’ Should a single app have that type of power over others?”
But Disconnect isn’t buying Google’s official statement. In a blog post, the company’s co-founder, Casey Oppenheim, said he thinks Google removed Disconnect because it’s classifying the app as an ad blocker. Warren reiterated this sentiment to AdExchanger.
“Our technology is being used by thousands of other companies, and in the absence of an explanation from Google, we have to assume they’re simply mistaking us for an ad blocker and they don’t want to see ad blockers in the Google Play store,” he said, noting that Disconnect does not block first-party ads or native ads.
The app is still available in Apple’s app store and for desktop. Android users who want it can still download it from sources other than Google Play. The app was downloaded more than 5,000 times before getting the Google boot.
Just because the advertising industry has been, as Warren put it, “built on a system based on massive amounts of data tracking and data mining doesn’t mean that this is the only way this thing can work.”
He added: “I understand why data tracking is very attractive to advertisers and makes sense in this world. But I think it’s time for consumers to have a voice in this.”
Despite Disconnect’s claims, Peter Hamilton, CEO of recently rebranded attribution analytics company Tune (previously HasOffers), noted that the service could be viewed as somewhat at odds with fluid functioning of the app ecosystem as we know it.
“Many companies rely on ads to provide services to end users at no cost and it’s important for companies to understand the success of their ad campaigns so they can deliver better ads to consumers,” Hamilton said. “If companies can’t access this information, they will deliver worse ads, which worsens the consumer’s experience and, in turn, allows them to make less money. The reason Disconnect is concerning is because consumers cannot make this choice independently, and instead rely on blanket opt-outs that may not be favorable for them in the long run.”
Nevertheless, Warren said Disconnect will be taking steps to get reinstated into Google Play.
“Google is in an incredibly powerful position and has a fiduciary interest centered on protecting the advertising-based business funnel, which is right now almost entirely built on data mining and invisible tracking,” Warren said. “We didn’t want to get kicked out of the Play store, obviously, but if a side effect of that is getting more awareness for those issues, then it is what it is.”