Just as the Gab app hit the #1 trending top spot on the Google Play Store, Google banned it. Will this potentially make life hard for the entire Fediverse?
The far-right social network Gab has now completed its transition to Mastodon. The main motivation was to make a foothold in the mobile app stores. Gab’s previous attempts at distributing a mobile client failed because Apple and Google both removed the it from their respective app stores. The companies cited violation of their policies against hate speech as reason for the removal.
By moving to Mastodon and the ActivityPub protocol, Gab no longer needs to distribute their own mobile client. Instead, their members can, at least in theory, download a generic Mastodon client, and log on to Gab’s Mastodon instance. This prompted some client developers to change the application code so that their client doesn’t work with Gab’s Mastodon instance.
But Mastodon clients are mostly FLOSS. Gab simply copied the source code, removed the blocking code, and compiled their own version of the Mastodon client. This happened to Tusky, and a Gab-branded version of Tusky was available in the Google Play Store.
At least for a short while.
When I saw the Gab Mastodon client appear on Google Play, I thought it would be very, very hard for Google to remove it. The reason is that the Gab client can also be used to connect to every other Mastodon instance out there. Google would also have to purge all the other Mastodon clients from the Play Store if they removed Gab. Right?
On July 13, Google suspended the app on the grounds that they violated the company’s user generated content (UGC) policy. Gab got 7 days to comply with the policy, or face a permanent ban. In an attempt to argue against the suspension, Gab claimed that “the app does not feature or host UGC of any kind".
While that’s technically correct, it doesn’t mean the Gab app isn’t covered by Google’s UGC policy. No apps on a mobile phone host the user generated content. Everything is hosted on servers on the internet, and the apps downloads and displays (i.e. features) the content. Thus, the Gab app - and every other app in the Google Play Store that downloads and display user generated content - is covered by Google’s UGC policy.
Since the Gab app is covered by the policy, Google can easily swing the ban-hammer citing the following from the UGC policy (emphasis is mine):
Apps whose primary purpose is featuring objectionable UGC will be removed from Google Play. Similarly, apps that end up being used primarily for hosting objectionable UGC, or that develop a reputation among users of being a place where such content thrives, will also be removed from Google Play.
– Google Play UGC Policy.
What counts as objectionable content is defined by Google, and is decided on a case-by-case basis. But there’s a good chance Gab will continue to be the loser in this game of whack-a-mole as long as they continue trying to get on the mobile app stores using their current strategy.
The Gab app that was banned from the Google Play Store used the Gab logo and the social network’s name. That made it blatantly obvious that it would be used in the same way as a Gab-specific client. The client was a very easy, Gab-branded target for Google.
Gab can get around this simply by embracing a popular Mastodon client that doesn’t block their domains. Fedilab would (unfortunately) be a great option. The client initially blocked Gab, but has since backtracked on that decision.
If Gab users adopt Fedilab instead of their own client, Google would have a hard time banning it since it’s not primarily being used “for hosting objectionable user generated content”. If they did, Google would also have to ban Twitter, Firefox, Facebook, Instagram, Chrome, and every other mobile app that can potentially be used for hosting objectionable user generated content.
By moving to Mastodon and ActivityPub, Gab has scored a huge point. Their mobile apps can’t be banned without doing the same to a wide selection of other apps as well.
Now it’s up to the Mastodon community, and app developers, to make it as hard has possible for Gab - and similar groups - to thrive and spread.