OAKLAND, Calif. — Google said it would no longer allow some apps to circumvent its payment system within the Google Play store that provides the company a cut of in-app purchases.
Google said in a blog post on Monday that it was providing “clarity” on billing policies because there was confusion among some developers about what types of transactions require use of its app store’s billing system.
Google has had a policy of taking a 30 percent cut of payments made within apps offered by the Google Play store, but some developers including Netflix and Spotify have bypassed the requirement by prompting users for a credit card to pay them directly. Google said companies had until Sept. 30, 2021, to integrate its billing systems.
The fees collected by Google and Apple’s app stores has become an especially contentious issue in recent months after Epic Games, maker of the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple and Google, claiming they violated antitrust rules with the commissions they charge.
Developers have bristled at the 30 percent cut demanded by Google and Apple, saying it is an inflated digital tax that hobbles their ability to compete. And because the two companies control almost all of the world’s smartphones, many developers gripe that they have no option but to adhere to their policies and pay the commissions.
Google has argued that it allows other companies to operate app stores within its Android software. On Monday, the company said it would make changes in next year’s version of Android to make it easier to use other app stores on its devices without compromising safety.
After Epic Games picked a fight with Apple over the sizable chunk of fees the company takes on transactions in its mobile ecosystem, it looks like the Fortnite developer will be waging a war on two fronts.
Epic added a direct payment option to its mobile game early Thursday, prompting Apple to remove Fortnite from the App Store. Now, the Android version of Fortnite has gone missing from Google’s own app marketplace too.
In a statement, Google defended the decision to remove Fortnite for breaking its platform rules:
The open Android ecosystem lets developers distribute apps through multiple app stores. For game developers who choose to use the Play Store, we have consistent policies that are fair to developers and keep the store safe for users. While Fortnite remains available on Android, we can no longer make it available on Play because it violates our policies. However, we welcome the opportunity to continue our discussions with Epic and bring Fortnite back to Google Play.
While Epic’s legal filing and in-game spoof of Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial make for a flashy fight, it’s not Epic’s first tangle over the mobile version of Fortnite. The company actually decided to keep Fortnite out of the Google Play Store back in 2018 over complaints very similar to its current crusade against the 30% cut that Google and Apple take from sales in their app stores. Fortnite is free-to-play, but players buy seasonal passes that unlock its progression system as well an in-game cosmetic items like skins that make Epic a ton of money and don’t affect gameplay.
Update: Epic has apparently filed a parallel suit against Google, citing the company’s old “Don’t be evil” mantra and alleging that the company violated antitrust rules by “using its size to do evil upon competitors.”
When Epic gave in and brought Fortnite back to the Google Play Store this April, it did so with a statement condemning Google’s treatment of apps outside of its own app marketplace. While all apps in Apple’s iOS come from the App Store, Google actually does allow apps like Fortnite to be sideloaded outside of Google Play, but the experience is generally less smooth and accompanied with warnings about malware.
“Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage, through technical and business measures such as scary, repetitive security pop-ups for downloaded and updated software, restrictive manufacturer and carrier agreements and dealings… Because of this, we’ve launched Fortnite for Android on the Google Play Store,” an Epic Games spokesperson said in April.
Fortnite is still available on Android, just not through Google’s app store. On its website, Epic points players to a direct download via QR code and the game is also available through Samsung’s Galaxy Store on supported devices.
The top trending app in India, which was downloaded more than 5 million times since late May and enabled users to detect and easily delete apps developed by Chinese firms, was pulled from Android’s marquee app store for violating Google Play Store’s Deceptive Behaviour Policy, TechCrunch has learned.
Under this policy an app on Google Play Store cannot make changes to a user’s device settings, or features outside of the app without the user’s knowledge and consent, and not it can encourage or incentivize users into removing or disabling third-party apps.
The app, developed by Indian firm OneTouch AppLabs, gained popularity in India in part because of a growing anti-China sentiment among many citizens as tension between the world’s two most populous nations has escalated in recent days over a Himalayan border dispute.
Several Indian celebrities in recent days have backed the idea of deleting Chinese apps. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev tweeted a video over the weekend that showed him deleting several apps that had affiliation with China.
Responding to a tweet from an Indian actor deleting TikTok from his phone, Nupur Sharma, a spokeswoman for India’s ruling party BJP, said it was “great to see concerned citizens setting an example” and “we ought to hit them where it hurts most.”
Citing an industry source, Chinese state-run Global Times news outlet reported on Tuesday that if the Indian government allows the “irrational anti-China sentiment” to continue it risks ruining bilateral relations that is “likely to draw tit-for-tat punishment from Beijing.”
The report added that some users in China ridiculed Remove China Apps and urged Indians to “throw away” their smartphones, referring to Chinese smartphone makers’ dominance in India’s smartphone market.
If the sentiment from India persists, it could mean bad news for several Chinese firms such as ByteDance and UC Browser that count India as their biggest overseas market. TikTok, which weeks ago was grappling with content moderation efforts in India, sparked a new debate over the weekend after a popular creator claimed that a video she posted on TikTok was pulled by the Chinese firm.
The video was critical of the Chinese government, she said. In a statement to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said the platform welcomes diversity of users and viewpoints and said it had implemented a more rigorous review process and reinstated the video.
In April, India amended its foreign direct investment policy to enforce tougher scrutiny on Chinese investors looking to cut checks to firms in the world’s second largest internet market. New Delhi, which maintains a similar stand for investors from several other neighboring nations, said the measure was introduced to “curb the opportunistic takeover” of Indian firms going through distress because of the global pandemic.
India’s Prime Minister Modi has also aggressively promoted the idea of boycotting goods made by foreign firms and advised the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens to look for local alternatives as part of his push to make India “self-reliant” and revive the slowing economy.
Now here’s an interesting GDPR complaint: Is Google illegally tracking Android users in Europe via a unique, device-assigned advertising ID?
First, what is the Android advertising ID? Per Google’s description to developers building apps for its smartphone platform it’s — [emphasis added by us]
The advertising ID is a unique, user-resettable ID for advertising, provided by Google Play services. It gives users better controls and provides developers with a simple, standard system to continue to monetize their apps. It enables users to reset their identifier or opt out of personalized ads (formerly known as interest-based ads) within Google Play apps.
Not so fast, says noyb — a European not-for-profit privacy advocacy group that campaigns to get regulators to enforce existing rules around how people’s data can be used — the problem with offering a tracking ID that can only be reset is that there’s no way for an Android user to not be tracked.
Simply put, resetting a tracker is not the same thing as being able to not be tracked at all.
noyb has now filed a formal complaint against Google under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), accusing it of tracking Android users via the ad ID without legally valid consent.
As we’ve said many, many, many times before, GDPR applies a particular standard if you’re relying on consent — as Google appears to be here, since Android users are asked to consent to its terms on device set up, yet must agree to a resettable but not disable-able advertising ID.
Yet, under the EU data protection framework, for consent to be legally valid it must be informed, purpose limited and freely given.
Freely given means there must be a choice (which must also be free).
Thus the question arises, if an Android user can’t say no to an ad ID tracker — they can merely keep resetting it (with no user control over any previously gathered data) — where’s their free choice to not be tracked by Google?
“In essence, you buy a new Android phone, but by adding a tracking ID they ship you a tracking device,” said Stefano Rossetti, privacy lawyer at noyb.eu, in a statement on the complaint.
noyb’s contention is that Google’s ‘choice’ is “between tracking or more tracking” — which isn’t, therefore, a genuine choice to not be tracked at all.
“Google claims that users can control the processing of their data, but when put to the test Android does not allow deleting the tracking ID,” it writes. “It only allows users to generate a new tracking ID to replace the existing one. This neither deletes the data that was collected before, nor stops tracking going forward.”
“It is grotesque,” continued Rossetti. “Google claims that if you want them to stop tracking you, you have to agree to new tracking. It is like cancelling a contract only under the condition that you sign a new one. Google’s system seems to structurally deny the exercise of users’ rights.”
We reached out to Google for comment on noyb’s complaint. At the time of writing the company had not responded but we’ll update this report if it provides any remarks.
The latest formal complaint over its Android ad ID has been lodged with Austria’s data protection authority on behalf of an Austrian citizen. (GDPR contains provisions that allow for third parties to file complaints on behalf of individuals.)
In terms of process, it notes that the Austrian DPA may involve other European data watchdogs in the case.
This is under a ‘one-stop-shop’ mechanism in the GDPR whereby interested watchdogs liaise on cross-border investigations, with one typically taking a lead investigator role (likely to be the Irish Data Protection Commission in any complaint against Google).
Under Europe’s GDPR, data regulators have major penalty powers — with fines that can scale as high as 4% of global annual turnover, which in Google’s case could amount to up to €5BN. And the ability to order data processing is suspended or stopped. (An outcome that would likely be far more expensive to a tech giant like Google.)
However there has been a dearth of major fines since the regulation began being applied, almost two years ago (exception: France’s data watchdog hit Google with a $57M fine last year). So pressure is continuing to pile up over enforcement — especially on Ireland’s Data Protection Commission which handles many cross-border complaints but has yet to issue any decisions in a raft of cross-border cases involving a number of tech giants.
Google today announced that it is extending the preview period of Android 11 by about a month. So instead of launching a beta this month, as it had previously planned, it’ll release a fourth developer preview today instead. The first beta will officially launch on June 3, during an Android-centric online event it’ll hold in lieu of its I/O developer conference.
“When we started planning Android 11, we didn’t expect the kinds of changes that would find their way to all of us, across nearly every region in the world,” Google’s Android team writes today. “These have challenged us to stay flexible and find new ways to work together, especially with our developer community. To help us meet those challenges we’re announcing an update to our release timeline.”
Google notes that it wants to meet the needs of the Android ecosystem, which has obviously started work on early app testing for Android 11 based on the company’s guidance, with the current environment during the coronavirus pandemic and the other priorities that come with that. Delaying the release by a month seems like a reasonable approach in this context.
Google says developers should target the Beta 1 release date of June 3 for releasing a compatible app to gather feedback from the larger group of Android Beta users. And that group will be larger because, like with previous releases, Google will make over-the-air updates available to users who opt in to the beta and have a compatible device. The list of compatible devices for the beta remains to be seen, but it’ll likely include all recent Pixel phones, starting with the Pixel 2.
Google is today announcing a series of policy changes aimed at eliminating untrustworthy apps from its Android app marketplace, the Google Play store. The changes are meant to give users more control over how their data is used, tighten subscription policies and help prevent deceptive apps and media — including those involving deepfakes — from becoming available on the Google Play Store.
The first of these new policies is focused on the location tracking permissions requested by some apps.
Overuse of location tracking has been an area Google has struggled to rein in. In Android 10, users were able to restrict apps’ access to location while the app was in use, similar to what’s been available on iOS. With the debut of Android 11, Google decided to give users even more control with the new ability to grant a temporary “one-time” permission to sensitive data, like location.
In February, Google said it would also soon require developers to get user permission before accessing background location data, after noting that many apps were asking for unnecessary user data. The company found that a number of these apps would have been able to provide the same experience to users if they only accessed location while the app was in use — there was no advantage to running the app in the background.
The new change to Google Play policies now requires that developers get approval to access background location in their apps.
But Google is giving developers time to comply. It says no action will be taken for new apps until August 2020 or on existing apps until November 2020.
A second policy is focused on subscription-based apps. Subscriptions have become a booming business industry-wide. They’re often a better way for apps to generate revenue as opposed to other monetization methods — like paid downloads, ads or in-app purchases.
However, many subscription apps are duping users into paying by not making it easy or obvious how to dismiss a subscription offer in order to use the free parts of an app, or not being clear about subscription terms or the length of free trials, among other things.
The new Google Play policy says developers will need to be explicit about their subscription terms, trials and offers, by telling users the following:
Whether a subscription is required to use all or parts of the app (and if not required, allow users to dismiss the offer easily).
The cost of the subscription.
The frequency of the billing cycle.
Duration of free trials and offers.
The pricing of introductory offers.
What is included with a free trial or introductory offer.
When a free trial converts to a paid subscription.
How users can cancel if they do not want to convert to a paid subscription
That means the “fine print” has to be included on the offer’s page, and developers shouldn’t use sneaky tricks like lighter font to hide the important bits, either.
Developers have until June 16, 2020 to come into compliance with this policy, Google says.
The final update has to do with the Play Store’s “Deceptive Behavior” policy.
This wasn’t detailed in Google’s official announcements about the new policies, but Google tells us it’s also rolling out updated rules around deceptive content and apps.
Before, Google’s policy was used to restrict apps that tried to deceive users — like apps claiming a functionally impossible task, those that lied in their listing about their content or features or those that mimicked the Android OS, among others.
The updated policy is meant to better ensure all apps are clear about their behavior once they’re downloaded. In particular, it’s meant to prevent any manipulated content (aka “deepfakes”) from being available on the Play Store.
Google tells us this policy change won’t impact apps that allow users to make deepfakes that are “for fun” — like those that allow users to swap their face onto GIFs, for example. These will fall under an exception to the rule, which allows deepfakes that are “obvious satire or parody.”
However, it will take aim at apps that manipulate and alter media in a way that isn’t conventionally obvious or acceptable.
Apps adding a public figure to a demonstration during a politically sensitive event.
Apps using public figures or media from a sensitive event to advertise media altering capability within an app’s store listing.
Apps that alter media clips to mimic a news broadcast.
In particular, the policy will focus on apps that promote misleading imagery that could cause harm related to politics, social issues or sensitive events. The apps must also disclose or watermark the altered media if it isn’t clear the media has been altered.
Similar bans on manipulated media have been enacted across social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and WeChat. Apple’s App Store Developer Guidelines don’t specifically reference “deepfakes” by name, however, though it bans apps with false or defamatory information, outside of satire and humor.
Google says the apps currently available on Google Play have 30 days to comply with this change.
In Google’s announcement, the company said it understood these were difficult times for people, which is why it’s taken steps to minimize the short-term impact of these changes. In other words, it doesn’t sound like the policy changes will soon result in any mass banning or big Play Store clean-out — rather, they’re meant to set the stage for better policing of the store in the future.
Google this week warned Android developers that Play Store app review times will be much longer than normal due to the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Developers should expect app reviews to take up to a week or even longer, the company informed its community by way of an alert …