Last updated: August 6th, 2020 – 5:12pm PST
Google Play removes Boomerang Parental Control – I share our recent experience dealing with Google’s Appeals team.
We are a team of three Dads with the combined goal of helping families start conversations with their kids about technology use. Over 5 years ago, the core features were built by our CTO based on his own family’s needs to limit his son’s time spent on his tablet. We innovated way before the big companies and continue to innovate having features that the big companies do not have. Now that everyone is aware of the essential need to ensure that our kids grow up with a balanced approach to technology usage, the big companies built their own tools with a massive competitive advantage: they own the operating system they want to control. In 2018, Apple made changes that saw us have difficulties supporting iOS devices after announcing screen time features in iOS12. In early 2019, Google also changed their permission requirements for apps declaring Calls and SMS permissions which was used with parents’ consent for our calls and text message safety features (this guideline change resulted in us offering a sideload download option that continues to offer these safety features). Now in 2020, it seems Google is taking similar measures on Android with their Family Link app which is tied into your Google account. Below is a timeline of our recent experience with the Google Play Appeals Team who have shown a very inconsistent relationship with their developers and how they review apps. There were some very frustrated messages back to Google’s Appeals Team below as we strongly believe Google’s completely in the wrong with their assessment of our apps and leveraging their size and strength to force us into changing (which we have yet are still stuck in a Rejected state at the time of this post).
Experience with Google’s App Review
Compared to Apple’s App Store app reviews, Google Play app reviews are way more automated. In the past year we received a few false positives where we were rejected for Deceptive Behavior in Boomerang Parental Control and our other app, Filter Chrome because our app didn’t allow the user to uninstall our app “easily”. Please note our apps are designed to be installed on kid devices owned by parents and self-identifying pornography addicts with our Filter Chrome app. A prevent removal feature is key to keep these users safe and is employed by all competitors, including Google’s own Family Link. I call these false positives as when we would upload a new version, without any changes except for a higher version number, our update would pass and we would be fine for months after. I can confirm this is a fairly common practice by Google Play developers, including apps in our parental control category.
This May, we had a similar violation but our apps were completely removed from Google Play within a few days of our updates (these updates were bug fixes). We thought similar to our previous experience so we proceeded to upload another update in the same fashion… This time was different. As an Android developer, when we update our app, we will upload it to what is called the “Alpha Track” on our Google Play Console. This where our update will be published and only available as an “internal” version for us to test before releasing to the public (what is called the Production track). We had never had our Production version completely removed from Google Play before for an update we published in the Alpha track. We received the same robotic template reply with the same Deceptive Behavior violation but this time, Google’s App Review completely removed our Production app from the Play Store. No warning and an ambiguous message that they couldn’t uninstall our app. We tried the same previous method of doing a version update but this time we were completely stuck. Below is the full documented timeline of events in our experience – we feel we have been wrongly targeted here and need to bring visibility into this poor handling by Google which has also cost a month’s revenue so far.
Timeline of Events
May 8th 2020: Our latest update (version 1257) gets flagged for “CAN’T UNINSTALL APP – Your app violates the Deceptive Behavior policy.” (screenshot below) The link to their policy does not state anything related to uninstall actions but mentions “Apps that modify device settings or features with the user’s consent but do so in a way that is not easily reversible.” There are no examples of what easily reversible looks like. Boomerang Parental Control, just like many other apps like us including Google’s own Family Link, have an easily reversible approach to turning off protection and uninstalling. The reality of parental control apps is, Parents do not want an easily removable app on their child’s Android device – this is a fact and product management 101. Plus, it’s with our user feedback that we added this feature several years ago so our app cannot be removed easily by a child – this is also a key component to any parental controls parent pay for. On some devices, it is not possible to fully lock in our app so we still offer a notification to parents when their child tampers with our app by either turning off specific permissions like the Device Administrator.
May 11th, 2020: I filed an Appeal [3-0733000030602] with the Google Play Appeals Team. Based on previous experience, I also resubmitted an update to our app as a way to see if this was just an error by Google’s app review robots.
May 13th, 2020: Our update gets approved (screenshot below).
May 14th, 2020: Reply from the Appeals Team with the following message, no actual feedback on my message to the Appeals Team on the removal that occurred on May 8th 2020. Tip for developers: You also do not receive a copy of your original message to them so make sure to make a copy.
At this point, we thought all would be fine just like previous experiences where we get flagged, republish an update, receive approval and stay live on Google Play. In this case, only until June 26th. This is when things started to really feel like targeting by Google’s review team.
June 26th, 2020: I received the following message which flagged multiple versions of our Filter Chrome versions, many were archived and never released to the public.
June 30th 2020: After 45 days of smooth operation (since our May 14th update), Boomerang Parental Control gets flagged again for the same ambiguous CAN’T UNINSTALL APP reason – 4 days after our Filter Chrome app gets flagged too for the same reason. I’m saying ambiguous as what is mentioned in the email (see below) does not share the language of the policy I’m supposed to use to make corrections to the violation. Furthermore, I know our competitors and Google’s own Family Link use the same approach that Google’s App Review says we are in violation of. This is absolute hypocrisy.
July 2nd, 2020: I filed another appeal with the following message. For clarity, our prevent removal feature is not enabled by default without the user’s consent. The parent/guardian or self managing person using our apps must manually turn on our app protection. You cannot get a copy of your appeal message so I copied it this time.
Message sent in the Appeals form:
We do not have anything in our Parental Control app Boomerang that has a prevent removal feature. Why the removal? Your guidelines are not being followed by your robots and I’m repeating myself again that your guidelines does not explicitly mention anything related to “CAN’T UNINSTALL APP”. I WANT TO TALK TO SOMEONE – NO MORE CANNED TEMPLATE REPLIES, PLEASE.
What are your robots looking for? Keywords in the metadata? User review keywords (which in our case come mostly negatively from kids who have their parents install our app on the kids phones that parents own!).
July 3rd, 2020: I reactivated my Premium account on LinkedIN and researched key contacts in Google Play’s Policy Team such as “Policy Leader” and “Policy Specialist”. I found about 20 whom I sent them a similar InMail message to the following screenshot below. Update July 22nd, 2020: I have yet to receive any feedback/reply from the people who create and manage Google Play’s Policies.
July 6th, 2020: We had to inform our users about our difficulties with Google as inquiries were pilling in from them sharing that they were no longer able to find our app on Google Play. Our email was titled “Google has become Evil”. We received several replies, including a few like the following:
Does this mean that my son will be able to uninstall boomerang from his device? If so, the program will be absolutely worthless to me!
Are you saying that there will no longer be any protection on uninstallation of the app? If so, what is even the point of the app? Is this going to be completely discontinued or just the Play Store version?
Removing the prevent uninstall option doesn’t make it worth paying for, obviously. Is this going to be fixed, or do I end my subscription and get the balance refunded to me?
July 7th, 2020: I received the following message from the Google Play Team. My gut is now not feeling right (deja vu of our experience with Apple in 2018/2019). My reply is included here too – as of July 22nd, 2020, I have yet to receive any answers to my previous questions.
July 8th, 2020: The following reply is received from Google. Google is now quoting various policies to build a case against our approach in protecting our app which is still allowed in many other apps recently updated on Google Play, including their own Family Link, a direct competitor to Boomerang Parental Control. Upon reviewing our app protection, we did find we could improve how the protection works to make it clearer to the user (typically a child, not an adult) on why the Device Administrator permission is protected. This mimicked many other apps I reviewed on Google Play so we made the change and pushed this update with the hope we could pass the review.
Later on July 8th, 2020: After discussing the recent email from Google with my team, I replied the following (screenshot below) but at the same time I was preparing my reply, I received another violation notification for the update we sent with a minor change to our app protection we thought would be accepted. This notification one was different, it was for unpublished, older versions of Boomerang Parental Control! This really started to feel like we were being targeted by Google Play’s review robots/team.
July 10th, 2020: I was fairly upset and frustrated after 2 days without a reply from the Google Appeals Team so I sent the following messages to our Appeals contact including requesting a phone call.
A few hours later, I received the following reply reeking of the typical robot-like replies received from Google’s team so far – totally disregarding my previous questions. I had again requested to be called to discuss the matters, however a brief email is all we got. This was also when we ended up getting our two active Appeals merged into one (reminder: we were fighting Google on both our Boomerang Parental Control and Filter Chrome apps for the same reasons). This also proved to me that a quick response is possible.
July 13th, 2020: This was a long day – I followed up with our contact at Google’s Appeal Team and actual received a same day reply!
I replied with additional information about our user experience. I really wanted to make sure they understood the importance of what we do for our user base.
Just over an hour later, I received the following email which shows yet again, older versions of our app were being rejected again by Google’s App Review Team. These updates were never published live, they were older than the version we had recently published and were in our internal testing area in the Google Play Console. The concerning part is a new reason was being provided as to why these versions were being flagged! We did not and have never introduced or exploited security vulnerabilities.
In follow up to this new update from Google’s App Review team, I followed up with our Appeal contact.
July 14th, 2020: I provided another update to our user base via email which mentioned that we would be looking at removing the Device Administrator protection in our Prevent Removal feature in order to hopefully get back live on Google Play. Our users were not happy with this decision, we could only point the finger at Google (I’m hoping their support team has a few unhappy messages from our user base by now). There was a small bit of good news for us as we were now approved on the Samsung Galaxy Store, with all of our features. So for families with Samsung devices could continue to use our app in its full glory.
I also followed up again with our Appeals contact with the goal to clearly inform them how we have clear consent in our app about our app protection – nothing is hidden here. Since I did not receive any feedback on why Google’s Family Link was still allowed on Google Play I clearly showed how Google’s own Family Link protects itself against easily being removed requiring a passcode from the parent/guardian – just like Boomerang Parental Control.
July 15th, 2020: Another follow up – it’s been close to 3 days without any feedback, 3 weeks with our apps being removed from Google Play and my patience was officially at zero now.
12 hours later, I receive what I now call a “Classic Canned Google response”.
Just over an hour later I sent this reply – my patience was officially at zero in this reply with a lot of emotion as this was having a material negative impact on our business we’ve worked so hard building organically over the pats few years.
July 16th 2020: Google’s Appeals team now finds another violation we’ve never been flagged for. We had not made any changes to our app to be flagged for this violation. Interestingly, the Elevated Privilege Abuse section of Google Play’s Malware policy easily applies to Google’s Family Link:
“Apps that abuse features to prevent them from being uninstalled or stopped.”
This applies to protecting the Device Administrator permission which Google’s Family Link has (video), Boomerang Parental Control has and many other similar competitors has.
4 minutes later, I replied:
I then spent a few minutes reading the additional information in this latest reply from Google’s Appeals team and I also reviewed in Google’s Family Link Google Play app description. I found the exact feature advertised in Google’s own app listing that they were now flagging Boomerang Parental Control as not being appropriate! So another email was sent with this to our contact.
Additionally, I reread the Malware guidelines – I wanted to be 100% sure I wasn’t missing anything. I don’t believe I was so I provided the following back to our contact at Google’s Appeals team.
July 19th, 2020: By this time, it was almost 3 days since any feedback from my emails. Our apps continued to be removed from Google Play. Internally, we discussed long and hard and decided it was more valuable to be back on Google Play right now than to keep our app protection in our apps. So we published an update without the additional app protection and emailed our Appeals Team contact with the hopes we would get a fast review… For our competitors, yes I offered to call out other apps still live on Google Play that I know were protecting themselves just like Boomerang Parental Control. Google is completely in the wrong here and needs to be exposed for their treatment of our apps.
July 20th, 2020: Some good news, Filter Chrome gets approved – it is still live as of July 24th 2020 12pm PST. 🤞
July 21st, 2020: Some bad news, Boomerang Parental Control gets rejected again! Google’s robotic review flagged us for the same behavior again, even though it no longer exists in our app.
My reply to our Google Appeals team contact.
July 22nd, 2020: At this time, daily follow ups were going to be sent until we received some direction on why our last update was rejected which included the removal of the specific Prevent Uninstall feature we were originally flagged for.
July 23rd, 2020: Still no reply from our Google Appeals contact, so another follow up…
July 24th, 2020: Still no response 8 days later, not even an automated one, so I wrote another follow up…
Later in the day on July 24th, I received the following response – still no resolution or feedback on previous emails I’ve sent.
July 27th, 2020: Another weekend without any replies or progress. Another follow up to our contact.
July 28th, 2020: Another follow up – I took the time to summarize key questions that have yet to be answered from the emails above by our contact on the Appeals team.
July 30th, 2020: Still reply – it’s coming up on a week since we received a reply which didn’t provide any feedback, just saying more time was required after already a week of delays (refer to Friday July 24th email above)
August 3rd, 2020: Busy day. Another early morning follow after the weekend, our July 19th update to Boomerang Parental Control was approved later in the afternoon and finally a reply with details we were never provided until now – over a month later!
Our Boomerang Parental Control up, without the prevent removal feature, was finally approved. This change was made on July 19th – it took this long to get it approved.
About 12 hours later – we received the following detailed reply. I read this reply many times and can’t help but think there’s a certain amount of “we did you a favor so be happy” in the answer here. The closing statement in this email really triggered me as if my feedback was taken seriously, I would have received actual replies to the many unanswered questions above.
I replied again as we obviously had been “triggering” this privilege escalation since the beginning but it took over a month to get this feedback.
August 4th, 2020: As previously stated in this blog post, we also provide a self-managed digital wellbeing app, Filter Chrome that provides web filtering and app blocking features for users that have challenges around pornographic content and managing time in apps. Our July 19th update without the Prevent Uninstall protection leveraging the Accessibility API approach was approved on July 20th by the same Appeals team we were already communicating with. Today, we received the following message – a 7 day warning to comply – which we are still unclear on what the Appeals Team is referring to. If the following sentence “you may not modify the operation of other 3P apps without their permission” (screenshot below and I’m assuming 3P means 3rd party) means that we cannot monitor apps for time spent in them, filtering the web or be able to block when a user has explicitly consented to do that – that sounds a lot like Google’s trying to kill an app category.
August 5th, 2020: I’ve become pretty good at following up by now – we pride ourselves in a 24 hours or less reply time. I’m going to hold companies like Google to the same standard of. customer service.
August 6th, 2020: No surprise that I’m hearing crickets on my previous email for additional feedback on our Filter Chrome 7 day warning. I dig a little deeper here in my reply.
So at this moment, we are in a position where Google’s allowing every other parental control and safety app that protect themselves on Google Play, including their own Family Link app but have flagged ours for what in their opinion is “we are not easily reversible”.
Google’s Appeals and App Review Teams clearly do not understand nor are empowered to understand the use case for a parental control app. They have continuously left my questions unanswered about their own app, Family Link, and why other competing apps with recent updates continue to be present on Google Play with same or similar prevent removal features. To me, it is clear that we are not being treated fairly. In addition, Google’s own app allows locking out an Android child device remotely. It also advertises this in their app description. Family Link also protects the Device Administration by greying out the DEACTIVATE Button. We also have this approach on Samsung devices thanks to our integration of Samsung Knox. On non-Samsung, we use the screen detection technology via the Accessibility Service permission which requires our parents’ consent prior to enabling our app protection – just like all parental control competitors that protect themselves from child uninstall.
Thanks for reading and supporting us – I will continue to update the (hopefully) positive outcome of this experience on this blog.
JP, Dad and Cyber Safety Specialist
Other apps affected (growing list)
Has your app been affected for the same reasons? Please contact me, Justin Payeur, and I will add you to our list. If you just want to chat without getting mentioned, I’m open to that as well.