You know how Google executives are always claiming that they care about privacy? Well, yet again their actions demonstrate just how empty those claims actually are are.
Disconnect, a San Francisco based startup just spent a year and $300,000 developing a privacy protecting app for Android smartphones called Disconnect Mobile. Like virtually all Android app developers it loaded the app to Google Play for distribution.
What the app does is that it blocks ads that are tracking you and otherwise gathering information about you. It doesn’t block all ads.
“The fact is, we are not opposed to advertising and think advertising plays a critical role in the Internet economy,” writes the company’s co-founder Casey Oppenheim. “But we are 100% opposed to advertising that invisibly tracks people and compromises their security.”
Oppenheim describes the Disconnect Mobile app in a blog post:
But our mobile product (like our Desktop product) is not an adblocker. Instead Disconnect focuses on protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware, and all too often these threats come in the form of advertising. In fact, some of the most privacy invasive data collection online happens through ads, which see you even if you don’t see or interact with them. And worse, ad networks (including Google) are increasingly being used by “advertisers” to spread malware. This increasingly popular tactic, called malvertising, is currently being investigated by the US Senate, and Disconnect Mobile is the first app to directly address it.
So what did Google do? After six days — but before Disconnect launched it’s PR campaign for the app — Google banned Disconnect Mobile from Google Play. Even without publicity the app was downloaded 5,000 times in the six days it as available. Who says people don’t care about their privacy?
Google said the Disconnect Mobile app violated its rules because it interferes with other apps, but Oppenheim says but that the policies are so vague that Google could, in essence, ban any app in its store.
“It’s like a Kafka novel – you’re getting kicked out or arrested for reasons you don’t even know,” Oppenheim told The Wall Street Journal.
He speculates that Google mistakenly considered Disconnect Mobile to be an adblocker:
Although we may never know Google’s true motivation for removing our app, it seems likely that they determined it threatened their tracking and advertising based business model, which accounts for over 90% of Google’s $66 billion in estimated 2014 annual revenue. Put another way, we think Google mistook us for an adblocker.
Oppenheim writes that Disconnect plans to fight Google’s decision. He draws this lesson from the incident:
This experience has effectively wiped out months of hard work and has highlighted a serious and increasingly dangerous problem: Google has way too much power over distribution of applications on Android and can kill applications at will without justification. This is why efforts to create alternative Android based platforms that respect user privacy – like Blackphone’s PrivatOS (on which Disconnect is the default search provider and a pre-installed application) and CyanogenMod (a more open aftermarket firmware distribution for Android devices) – are so important for the future of the increasingly Android-based Internet.
Here is how you can help Disconnect fight back:
• Install Dscconnect’s existing Android and iOS products
• Contribute to Disconnect and the great privacy nonprofits we support
• Like (https://www.facebook.com/disconnecters) and Follow Dissonect (https://twitter.com/disconnectme) to stay in touch and get the latest updates and calls to action.
European antitrust regulators are already looking into whether Google exerts too much and unfair control over the Android ecosystem which runs 78 percent of smartphones worldwide. U.S. antitrust regulators — either the Department of Justice of the Federal Trace Commission — need too launch an investigation as well.
And the takeaway from this incident for consumers who use Google’s services — we are its product, not its customers — is simple: Google’s actions say much more about Google’s true beliefs and values than its empty rhetoric and false claims about privacy concerns