Google Bans Popular Podcast App Over COVID-19 Content

John Lister's picture

Google has banned a hugely popular podcast app from the Play Store, claiming it breaches a ban on COVID-19 content. It appears to be a spectacular screw-up by Google's filtering system.

Podcast Addict is a leading app in its field with more than five million downloads, so it came as a surprise to developers to receive a message from Google saying it had been banned from the Play Store.

While it's still possible to install Podcast Addict manually, it's a big blow to its distribution and makes the app inaccessible to potential Android users who follow common security advice to stick to the official store. (Source: 9to5google.com)

The message from Google explaining the removal read: "Pursuant to Section 8.3 of the Developer Distribution Agreement and the Enforcement policy, apps referencing COVID-19, or related terms, in any form will only be approved for distribution on Google Play if they are published, commissioned, or authorized by official government entities or public health organizations." (Source: theregister.co.uk)

COVID-19 Apps Must Be Authoritative

That rule was added recently and was introduced with good intentions: Google wanted to crack down on apps which either gave misleading information about the coronavirus pandemic, or tried to exploit people looking for COVID-19 information to promote poor quality or even malicious apps.

The Podcast Addict developers say they haven't got any further detail from Google about exactly how their app breaches their rules. They note they haven't added any references to COVID-19 to the description or any listings data about the app.

The most likely explanation is that if somebody subscribes to a podcast or browses a directory of podcasts in the app, they'll be able to access descriptions of show episodes. Inevitably countless podcasts on all manner of subjects have had recent episodes which mention COVID-19 in the show description.

Google's filtering system may well have picked up these descriptions and not been set up to distinguish between the Podcast Addict app itself and the individual podcasts which it accesses and has no control over.

Slow Response To Appeal

The app's developers have formally appealed against the ban and the chances are Google will backtrack after getting poor publicity about the incident. However, the developers say they are particularly disappointed that Google rules mean it isn't entitled to a response to the appeal until seven days have passed.

They suggest Google should change its policies so that established apps which have a lot of downloads or have been available for a long time should get a fast-track process for any appeal - their logic being that such apps are more likely to be the victim of a procedural error rather than genuinely breaching the rules.

What's Your Opinion?

Are you surprised the app has been flagged this way? Is there a better way to automatically filter out misleading or dangerous apps? Should bigger apps get to the front of the queue when appealing against bans?

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Comments

doulosg's picture

...the arrogance of Google (thinking more highly of themselves than deserved). But at least there is more detail than "violates community guidelines." Google ~should~ be able to tell the developers *exactly* where the COVID-19 trigger was fired. That would be in Google's programming, and it should enable a quick review of the situation. This should then elicit a rapid response from Google without waiting for some arbitrary waiting period. Google needs to realize that it *can* make mistakes and be prepared to mitigate them.

stekcapofni's picture

Q#1: Are you surprised the app has been flagged this way?
No. Disappointed. But not surprised.
Google, Facebook, et. al., believe that they are smart enough to be able to programmatically censor the information you get to access. They are perfectly free to try.

Q#2: Is there a better way to automatically filter out misleading or dangerous apps?
Probably.
Not knowing the algorithms involved, I cannot answer that question.
But the problem , as Google, Facebook, etc. sees it, is not the app. It's the content. In my opinion, apps should only be banned from a store if they are known to breach security, install viruses, etc. Not for reasons of content.
However, Google, Facebook, et. al., being business (not governments) are free to choose what apps and content they want served up through their platforms. Consumers must realize that these businesses are censoring what information the users get to access. When enough consumers feel that they are being spoon fed the truth/reality that Google deems suitable, they will move on to other sources of information.

Q#3: Should bigger apps get to the front of the queue when appealing against bans?
Google, being a business, is free to prioritize their customers however they see fit.
They are free to include/exclude what they want. My issue is when a government steps in and forces and/or colludes with businesses to control content.

The problem with censorship is, who gets to decide what you are permitted to see or hear?
Do you want someone, be that an individual, a government, a corporation, being able to dictate to you what information you are allowed to view or hear?
I believe strongly in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. Otherwise we end up like China where the government has (almost) complete control on the information its citizens can access.

It is better that the listener be able to discern for themselves what is true and what is BS. I better stop now on that topic before my tin foil hat falls off from my fit of rage.