Last week, the Wall Street Journal posted an article discussing why Google removed a smartphone app called “Disconnect Mobile” from the Play Store. Google stated that the app violated a policy prohibiting software that interferes with other applications. Disconnect Mobile, which was downloaded more than five thousand times in the five days before it was removed, aims to disrupt other applications from collecting data about the user and the device it’s installed on. Disconnect, the developer, spent a year and $300,000 developing the app. The company’s co-founder, Casey Oppenheim, writes that the business was careful to build the product according to Google’s rules. He’s subsequently hit out at Google for writing a rulebook that is so vague they have the power to ban any app in the store. Casey states that, “There is no reason why you shouldn’t have the same degree of control over the computer you have in your pocket as you do over your computer on your desktop.”
Disconnect Mobile is a form of VPN or virtual private network, which is essentially a secured pipe between your device and their servers. Their servers directly interact with the Internet at large and strip out much of the tracking information present in your Internet stream before it’s piped to your device. The developers explain that this reduces the threat of malware, identity theft, search and browser history tracking. They also claim that their VPN may reduce bandwidth consumption and improve performance. As you might expect, removing the information that is collected by Android does absolutely interfere with other applications on the device. It’s a neat and scalable business, but let’s not forget that this is a business.
Casey wrote a long blog post discussing how Disconnect Mobile was removed from the Google Play Store. He hits out at Google for their ability to “arbitrarily and unilaterally ban any app from the world’s dominant mobile operating system (78% of total smartphones run Android).” He also gives direct support for Blackphone’s PrivatOS and CyanogenMod as alternative Android distribution platforms “that support privacy and security.” Disconnect Search is the primary search engine for PrivatOS. Casey speculates that Google blocked Disconnect Mobile because it mistook it for an ad-blocker, citing the APIs (application programming interfaces, a standardised set of functions to help developers create applications that access features or data of an operating system or application). He is careful to explain that Disconnect Mobile focuses on “protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware, and all too often these threats come in the form of advertising,” going on to highlight that many advertisers are increasingly spreading malware via “malvertising.”
Whilst it looks like Disconnect’s application has been put back up into the Play Store, Casey’s blog is a less than friendly shot at the search engine. I cannot help feeling cynical that Disconnect used the ban as something of a PR exercise. I do acknowledge that there is a threat of advertising, but I am not sure that advising users to go off-Play Store for applications is necessarily sensible. Simply telling users to use their app, which by the way has limited bandwidth so you’ll need to pay if you want full access, smacks of being opportunistic.