Disconnect.Me, a company trying to promote, and monetize, the anti-privacy impulse among web users, recently ran afoul of Google’s standards for apps in the Android Play Store. Disconnect.me Mobile, an app designed with the goal of “protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware” and aimed squarely at blocking “malvertising” got pulled from the Store a mere five days after its release. Casey Oppenheim, the CEO of Disconnect.Me believes Google considers their app to be essentially an ad-blocker, which has been prohibited from the Play Store since at least March 2013, when the Ad-Block Plus Android App was removed. Oppenheim considers his app to be more than just an indiscriminate ad-blocker, but a legitimate tool for privacy and security for mobile users, and does note that the Apple App Store allows the iOS app. For Oppenheim, preventing malicious privacy violations should trump any advertising claims, and Google’s rationales for blocking the app, that it “interferes” with other apps is silly and self-serving.
Google does often seem to struggle with the fact that advertising is its overwhelming source of revenue, and makes decisions that are inconsistent, in what TechDirt’s Mike Masnick refers to as “Google’s opaque (and often hypocritical) decision-making process.” An obvious example is that Google bans ad-blocking apps from the Android Play Store, but does allow them in the Chrome Web Store for browser extensions, making desktop browser ad-blocking easy, but preventing it on mobile devices. But those rules don’t necessarily apply for the Chome OS in mobile Chromebooks, which can have ad-blocking. And of course, there are pretty easy work arounds for getting rid of ads in Android, including side-loading ad-blocking apps as downloaded .apk files, rooting the device and installing ad-blocking apps through alternative Android repositories like F-Droid, or just installing the Firefox Mobile browser and installing the Ad-Block Plus add-on for that app. In other words Google makes a somewhat half hearted attempt to prevent ad-blocking, while in fact, just making it slightly inconvenient for tech-savvy users.
It will be interesting to see how strict Google becomes about ad-blocking as Android continues to be a dominate mobile OS, and ChromeOS continues to grow in popularity. Of course, Apple while far, far less dependent on advertising revenue than Google, is an ad company as well and generally frowns on the kind of user-directed tinkering like ad-blocking, particularly as mobile advertising struggles in general to reach users.