Google Threatens to Boot Mastodon Apps Off Google Play

Comply with our User Generated Content policy, or else!

Last year, Gab, a primarily far-right social network, published their app to Google Play. Gab had recently moved from a proprietary platform to Mastodon, a fediverse micro-blogging service, and now they wanted to use Google to increase their audience. But the endeavor was short lived, and in July, Google suspended and later banned the Gab app on the grounds that it violated Google’s User Generated Content (UGC) policy.

If you want to dig into the details, I wrote a post covering Google’s Gab ban.

Recently, at least three generic Mastodon clients, Husky, Subway Tooter, and Fedilab, were all given similar 7-day warnings (IA mirror) by Google. The stated reason is that they also violate the UGC. Unless the apps are changed so they they no longer violate the UGC within 7 days, the apps will suffer the same fate as Gab, and Google will swing the ban-hammer.

Google’s UGC policy (IA mirror) states, among other things, that (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.

In Gab’s case, it was clear that the app was booted because of the “primary purpose” wording. For the three Mastodon clients that just had their 7-days warning, however, it’s more likely that they have “develop[ed] a reputation among users of being a place where such content thrives”. The reason? They allow their users to log in to Gab. If words gets out among Gab’s users that they can use these three clients to conveniently connect to the service, and this in turn makes them primarily Gab clients, you, as a conscientious app developer, are going to have a bad day.

Google has given no explicit reason why think the apps violate the UGC, so this is all purely speculation on my part. But if this is indeed the reason, the apps can get back in the warmth by blocking Gab and other high-profile Mastodon instances like it.

To Comply or Not Comply

For many app developers, however, this is not an option. When Gab announced its arrival to the Fediverse last year, some Mastodon client app developers added code in their apps that prevents users from logging in to Gab. Among the most prominent Android apps that did this was Tusky and Fedilab. But after a public backlash from some of its users, the Fedilab developer got cold feet, and the block was removed from the app. At the time this happened, I’d been working on maintaining the Norwegian translation for Fedilab, but the developer’s explicit support of Gab made me reconsider my association with the project. In the end, I decided not to continue my work with Fedilab.

Fedilab still allows its users to access Gab. Tusky, on the other hand, has kept the Gab block, and I’m now translating Tusky instead. Interestingly, it appears that Tusky has not received any UGC policy violation warnings from Google, which substantiates that Gab might be the reason Husky, Subway Tooter and Fedilab received their 7-day warning.

Since Google Play is not the only way to install apps on an Android device, getting booted from it does not necessarily mean instant permadeath for an app. Android users can access third party app stores and install the app from there, or install apps downloaded directly from the internet. This means that an app that is banned from Google Play is not an immediate write off, as opposed to apps that are banned from Apple’s App Store. Instead, app developers can use third party app stores like F-Droid, or even get users to download the app directly from their web site.

But not that many people know that F-Droid exist, and perhaps even fever install apps they downloaded from the internet. So in reality, being on Google Play can mean life or death for an app.

Google has to Ban Everything Now!

If you start looking at discussions about this whole 7-day warning thing on the internet, you’ll see that many people argue that if Google decides to ban three generic Mastodon clients, they’ll also have to ban apps like Twitter, Facebook, Firefox, Opera, and even their own browser, Chrome. This argument has been made by Mastodon’s creator and main developer, Eugen Rochko, and I even used it myself in my post about Google’s Gab ban last year.

There are a couple of reasons why this logic doesn’t quite stick. First of all, while all the apps mentioned above can be used to access and spread the same kind of content that Gab can, it’s far from their primary purpose. Secondly, the apps have not developed a reputation among users of being a place where such content thrives. Sure, there are quite a lot of vile stuff happening on Facebook and Twitter, but there is also a lot of less sinister content on both services. Both Facebook and Twitter have also recently at least tried to make some (half-assed) efforts to limit some of the dumbfuckery people publish on their sites.

Last, but not least; Google removing themselves from their own platform? You really think that will actually happen? Give me a fucking break. What might eventually happen, though, and there will of course be a massive public outcry, is that Google flat out refuses to serve Gab and similar sites in Chrome. And perhaps they’ll stop resolving certain domain names through their DNS service.

Freedom of Speech

Is Google’s potential ban of these three Mastodon clients an attack on free speech? Tusky answers that question very well in their FAQ:

Q: Is this [blocking Gab] censorship/against free speech etc.?

A: No because of three reasons, 1, hate against marginalised groups is not an opinion; 2, Gab can still be accessed by other means and Tusky can be forked; 3, Tusky is no government, so it cannot take away your basic rights.

It’s Google’s right to define their own rules, just as it’s Apple’s right to do the same on their own playground - something they have certainly done in their ongoing feud with Epic Games. You can argue that the size of Google makes this somewhat of a problem, because so many people are affected by what Google decides to do. I’d tend to agree with you, but that’s because the size of Google (and Apple, and Facebook, and Twitter, and many others) is a problem in general.

In the end, Google banning apps for allowing their users to access Gab is not an attack on you freedom of speech, no matter how you try to spin it. You’re not really prevented from accessing Gab, you just have to adapt. If Google starts blocking Gab, and other similar sites, everywhere and you still want to access them, you’re free to go ahead and download the app from a source that is not Google, use another browser that is not Chrome, and another DNS provider that is also not Google. By continuing to using Gab even when Google doesn’t allow it, you’re not risking prosecution, incarceration or worse. You’re still a free individual.

You’re also free to take a good, long, hard look at yourself in the mirror.

Looking Ahead

In the end, this might all be a huge nothing burger. Earlier this year, Google suspended a podcast app from Google Play on the grounds that it was spreading misinformation about COVID-19. They later reversed the ban, and released a statement saying that the suspension had been a mistake, and that app had been caught in the crossfire of an automated script. Some people will tell you that Google’s intention was to actually ban the app, but that they backtracked because of the app’s large user base. Personally, I’m inclined to believe Google because automated scripts tend to misfire.

This might be the case now as well. Perhaps Husky, Subway Tooter, and Fedilab are all just incorrectly labeled by an automated system. Or perhaps it was an error that Tusky did not received a 7-day warning, like the other Mastodon clients did? If the latter is the case, and Google is clamping down on all Mastodon clients, the fediverse is in for a rough ride.

It will be interesting to see what the next few days bring. Will any of the three apps make the changes necessary to avoid being banned from Google Play? Or will they defy Google, and prepare for a life as an outcast?


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