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Google’s new Play Store rules target annoying ads and copycat crypto apps

Google’s new Play Store rules target annoying ads and copycat crypto apps


They also work to clamp down on other bad behavior

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A Google logo sits at the center of ominous concentric circles
It’s making several changes to the Play Store.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google is trying to cut down on annoying, unskippable ads in Android apps and overall bad behavior in the Play Store (via TechCrunch). The company announced wide-ranging policy changes on Wednesday that update rules across several categories to be more specific, clamping down on loopholes developers may have used to skirt existing rules.

One of the changes that will impact your everyday phone usage the most is for ads. Google says its updated guidelines, which will go into effect on September 30th, help ensure “high quality experiences for users when they are using Google Play apps.” The new policy tells developers that apps can’t pop up a full-screen ad that won’t let you close it after 15 seconds. There are some exceptions — if you voluntarily choose to watch an ad to get some sort of reward points, or if they pop up during a break in the action, those rules won’t necessarily apply.

Google’s current policy says ads “must be easily dismissible without penalty” and that you have to be able to close out of full-screen ads, but the 15-second benchmark is new. While that’s still a bit of a wait, it does make it so that you won’t have to sit through a two-minute long ad where the (tiny, hard to see) “x” only appears after 70 seconds, right in the middle of a game or while trying to do something else. 

One of Google’s examples of a rule-breaking ad.
One of Google’s examples of a rule-breaking ad.
Gif: Google

The new rules also specify that ads shouldn’t be “unexpected,” popping up right after you load a level or article. Again, the current rules already say that surprise disruptive ads aren’t allowed, but the new rules give additional concrete examples of violations.

It’s worth noting that the ad policies for apps made for children are stricter. While Google’s not changing a ton about what types of ads developers can show to kids, it will be making some changes to the tools that developers use to deliver those ads, starting in November.

Google’s also making changes to how apps can implement and use Android’s built-in VPN (or virtual private network) tools. Apps won’t be allowed to implement their own VPNs to collect user data unless they get explicit permission from the user, nor will they be able to use VPNs to help users bypass or change ads from other apps. Mishaal Rahman, a technical editor for Esper, pointed out on Twitter that this could help clamp down on ad fraud where users pretend to be clicking on ads from one country while actually being in another but says that it could also affect things like DuckDuckGo’s privacy-focused app tracking protection.

Smaller tweaks can add up to make Play a friendlier place to get apps

Google’s new rules include several other changes as well. For example, developers will be required to link to an “easy-to-use, online method” for canceling subscriptions in their app if their app sells subscriptions — the company does say that linking to Google Play’s subscription center counts. Google’s also cracking down on health misinformation, adding a section that says apps can’t contain misleading information about vaccines, unapproved treatments, or “other harmful health practices, such as conversion therapy.”

The update also makes some changes to the language around monitoring apps, or “stalkerware,” saying that any app made to track people has to use a specific flag telling Google what it’s doing and that apps have to say that they can monitor or track you in their Play Store description. (These sorts of apps are still only allowed to track employees and children — Google explicitly says using these apps for tracking someone else, like a spouse, is banned, even if the user claims the person being tracked is aware of it.)

There’s one slightly humorous tidbit in the updated “Impersonation” section — in addition to other companies, developers, and organizations, Google’s new rules say that developers can’t try and trick people into thinking that their app is associated with an “entity” if it’s not. As an example of what this means, Google shows an app with iconography that could trick users into thinking it’s associated with a government or cryptocurrency project. (There’s also a funny line about how you can’t name your app “Justin Bieber Official” unless you’re actually Justin Bieber or have his permission, but it was already in the existing guidelines.)

Not allowed: using Fishcoin’s logo in your app icon.
Not allowed: using Fishcoin’s logo in your app icon.
Image: Google

This example appears to be perfect timing on Google’s part. While the policy won’t go into effect until the end of August, the company announced it just a day before Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent it a letter asking for more information on scammy crypto apps on the Play Store.