Techdirt's think tank, the Copia Institute, is working with the Trust & Safety Professional Association and its sister organization, the Trust & Safety Foundation, to produce an ongoing series of case studies about content moderation decisions. These case studies are presented in a neutral fashion, not aiming to criticize or applaud any particular decision, but to highlight the many different challenges that content moderators face and the tradeoffs they result in. Find more case studies here on Techdirt and on the TSF website.

Content Moderation Case Study: Google Removes Popular App That Removed Chinese Apps From Users' Phones (2020)

from the app-cleansing dept

Summary: An app that allowed users to moderate content residing on their own phones was given the boot by Google after it was determined to be in violation of Play Store rules.

The self-explanatory "Remove China Apps" app was developed by Indian engineers residing in Jaipur, India in collaboration with One Touch App Labs. The app was created in response to growing backlash against China during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, after early reports showed visitors to a seafood market in Wuhan, China had contributed to the spread of the virus.

India's proximity to China intensified this backlash. How removing apps developed in China was supposed to stop the spread of the virus is best left to the possibly literally-fevered imaginations of the app developers and the millions of Indian users who downloaded the app.

However questionable the motivation for the development and deployment of the app, it did allow Android users to easily identify apps developed by Chinese developers and remove them from their phones. However, this secondhand act of personal content moderation was soon hampered by Google, which dumped the app from its Play store, citing violations of its policies. Specifically, Google pointed to its "deceptive behavior" policy. App developers are forbidden from uploading apps that "encourage or incentivize users to remove or disable third-party apps."

Decisions to be made by Google:

  • Should Google control how Android phone purchasers choose to use their phones?
  • Should Google be more concerned with possible exploitation of permissions to compromise phone users, rather than the ability of users to more closely moderate the content of their devices?
  • Is an app that openly states it will remove other apps actually "deceptive?" 
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • Could apps like these serve a useful purpose, like giving Google a heads up on questionable apps/developers?
  • Does maintaining a blocklist for devs/users achieve the same objective without harming developers who rely on crowdfunding? 
  • Does pushing Android users towards sideloading apps do less to protect users than removing questionable apps that run afoul of rules rarely broken by app developers?
Resolution: Google has refused to reinstate the app. Android users are still able to sideload the app if they wish. The popularity of the app went further than India and the county's kneejerk reaction to developments in Wuhan, China.

But Google still has a battle ahead of it. With it commanding nearly 95% of the Indian market, the demand for apps that (correctly or incorrectly) "punish" Chinese app developers remains a growth market.

Originally posted to the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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Filed Under: apps, china, content moderation, covid, deceptive behavior, india, removing apps, security
Companies: google


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  • icon
    renato (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 4:40pm

    Was it really about covid?
    IIRC, the tension between India and China arose from a border conflict where an (some) Indian soldiers died, and it spurred a lot of anti-China demonstrations in India, including some talking about removing Chinese apps from users phones.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 4:50pm

    Apps that encourage or incentivize users into removing or disabling third-party apps or modifying device settings or features unless it is part of a verifiable security service.

    This isn't remotely deceptive, but it is deceptive for teh goog to place it under the heading of "deceptive" in its developer rules. The rules preceding it generally make sense.

    Why does it have to be part of a security service? Heck, i remember finally looking for (and finding) an app to delete many of the far too numerous (and awful) ringtone/alert sounds on my phone as it was a pain scrolling through all of them every time i wanted to choose a sound for an alert. (Since you cannot do this manually and permanently for some reason. Thanks Google and OEMs and phone companies.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 5:31pm

    clean smartphone

    why is it so difficult to buy a safe/secure smartphone with a clean software operating that's NOT intrusively manipulated by Google, Apple, or the phone manufacturer company?

    there are some largely failed attempts at independent Linux smartphones, but no real consumer alternative.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pixelation, 7 May 2021 @ 7:59pm

      Re: clean smartphone

      $

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 8 May 2021 @ 1:18am

      Re: clean smartphone

      Because whether we like it or not, the average consumer will place convenience and price over and above security and privacy every time.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2021 @ 3:55pm

      Re: clean smartphone

      why is it so difficult to buy a safe/secure smartphone with a clean software operating that's NOT intrusively manipulated by Google, Apple, or the phone manufacturer company?

      1. Most chips are made by a really small number of companies. If they decide, in their boardroom dealings, that consumers can't execute commands on their chips without their permission then there won't be any chips that allow otherwise.

      2. Most of the modern device's "security" is hardware backed. I.e. Tied to a manufacturer's digital signature using industry grade crypto, and verified at the hardware level. This allows the companies to implement their decision in step 1.

      3. Most OS developers tend to rely on that hardware signature verification provided in step 2. Some like Apple refuse to do anything without a valid signature. (Again, how is it that Apple isn't the device owner under the law?) Others like Google / Samsung will allow an unverified or missing signature, but intentionally degrade the user's experience (sometimes permanently! See also: Samsung KNOX) or prohibit execution of only certian commands until the device is booted with a valid manufacturer's signature. Like with Google's SafetyNet feature. Some other devices, like modern PCs, have a split system. In which the security operations are implemented in a embedded processor entirely separate from the main processor used by the end-user. (See AMD's PSP or Intel's ME) The separate secure processor is always controlled by the manufacturer in these machines. In addition to a sometimes user configurable signature enforcement on the end-user processor. (See also Secure Boot.) On these systems the OS tends to only verify the security state on the end-user processor. This is due to the fact that the end-user processor on which the OSes run will be forcibly shut down by the secure processor if the secure processor fails verification of it's own manufacturer signature. In the event the end-user processor signature is disabled or user-defined, for the systems that allow it, most OSes won't degrade the user's experience, but an app may still choose to do so.

      Given all of this it's pretty easy to see the common theme: Users are not permitted to control the devices they "own". From the top down, the entire industry's goal is to keep control of these devices for themselves. End-users are just that users. Not owners. If you want to fix those failed attempts at a clean device, you'll need to fix the ownership issue first.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 9 May 2021 @ 1:49am

        Re: Re: clean smartphone

        1. The average consumer doesn't give 2 shits about operating systems. They just want something that runs and lets them use the apps they want. So, we're in the same catch 22 that has dogged the non-Apple PC market - consumers want to run all their existing programs and will complain about any fundamental design changes, so Windows / Android have a defacto monopoly until such time a fundamental change in the market makes it likely that the mainstream will make a switch. Until then, Linux will remain a niche concern (the reverse being true of the server market, where it dominates because professionals are far more likely to switch OS and use multiple distros depending on their needs).

        Even if it were a simple plug and play situation to get another OS on to a device, the vast majority of consumers still wouldn't bother using anything other than the Android/iOS that came preinstalled, and no mainstream device manufacturer is going to go out of their way to support a niche product in a mass consumer space.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 9 May 2021 @ 1:20pm

          Re: Re: Re: clean smartphone

          They don't have to give two shits, but we used to have a big largely open architecture market, regardless of how un-open an OS was, which has been purposely eroded.

          Manufacturers don't really have to support a lot, they just need to stop their anti-support, which they go well out of their way for.

          But yeah, true about consumers otherwise.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 9 May 2021 @ 11:11pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: clean smartphone

            Architecture and OS are completely different things, and mainstream consumers care as little about architecture as they do the OS.

            Us tech types can complain and worry about the openness and choice all we want, but at the end of the day open platforms are not a selling point unless they are used to build things that consumers care about - or if the restrictions end up preventing the development of killer apps that they do care about.

            There's plenty to discuss here, but ultimately the answer to the original question of why open secure platforms are not widely available is because the mainstream market doesn't care about them, and mainstream consumers will happily buy locked down products if they do what they want the to do while being cheaper.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2021 @ 6:05am

          Re: Re: Re: clean smartphone

          Even if it were a simple plug and play situation to get another OS on to a device

          I wasn't talking about alternative OSes. I was talking about the built in OS the device comes with. Apple the very first manufacturer I used as an example explicitly doesn't allow any alternative OS on their iDevices by design. I was talking about the manufacturer's signature enforcement of the hardware. I.e. If I want to patch a bug in iOS itself, not replace iOS, I must first break the signature enforcement that prohibits me from doing so. If I want to run an iOS app that Apple doesn't approve of I must first break Apple's signature enforcement that prohibits me from doing so. If I want to prevent, let's say a future Apple from installing government mandated spyware on my device via a forced OTA update, I must first break Apple's signature enforcement that prohibits me from doing so.

          What I said has nothing to do with running linux or any other POS OS that you can come up with, but considering you want to go down that path as a way to derail the conversion and discard everything I said out of hand, I would say the biggest threat is here is in fact YOU. Because the first thing you think of when talks of mandated manufacturer signature enforcement comes up is running some POS, you willing discard the notion that having any control at all over the devices you purchase as irrelevant.

          How about having a more open mind here, hmm?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 6:47am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: clean smartphone

            "What I said has nothing to do with running linux or any other POS OS that you can come up with"

            The guy both of us initially responded to in this thread was. Why did you respond to him if you weren't talking about the same thing?

            " I would say the biggest threat is here is in fact YOU. Because the first thing you think of when talks of mandated manufacturer signature enforcement comes up is running some POS, you willing discard the notion that having any control at all over the devices you purchase as irrelevant."

            I'd say the problem is your reading comprehension.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 7:11am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: clean smartphone

            "...you willing discard the notion that having any control at all over the devices you purchase as irrelevant."

            I don't think he does, really.

            I'm fully with him on the idea that Apple is free to do whatever they wish to their own hardware.
            I also think Apple are a POS company which has rightly lost most of the smartphone market to various Android brands because a lot of users don't agree with being treated like witless sheep.

            These two thoughts aren't mutually exclusive. If you tell me Apple is selling a bad product then I'm saying "so don't buy Apple".

            I wouldn't question GM's right to sell an EV which "solves" the battery problem by putting a 2 mile long power cord in the car either. I'd simply spring for a Toyota or Volvo instead.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 7 May 2021 @ 8:00pm

    Well, the nice thing about Android is, you can sideload apps. Problem solved?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    OldMugwump (profile), 8 May 2021 @ 9:51am

    Mixed feelings

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    As long as Google (or Apple..., etc.) is running an app store, and to any extent at all exercising discretion about what apps are offered, they're - to that limited degree - endorsing the apps and app developers in the store.

    I guess they need to have a firm policy about the grounds for excluding apps - is it ONLY about security, or are there other factors involved?

    Suppose it was a KKK app, to help you find local KKK meetings and communicate with your fellow Klan members?

    Suppose it was an app that "cleans" your phone of all apps developed by Black-owned companies? By Jewish-owned companies?

    Lots of people would complain if Google allowed such apps to remain in their store.

    I don't see this as any different - it removes apps from Chinese companies, solely because they're from China. Not because there's anything known to be wrong with the apps. Demand for it is driven by anti-Chinese nationalism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2021 @ 4:09pm

      Re: Mixed feelings

      Lots of people would complain if Google allowed such apps to remain in their store.

      The obvious statement here is this: The complaints will come regardless of which side is chosen.

      That is true for any app, on any store, made by anyone. It's human nature. Trying to claim that Godwin's Law justifies exclusion will only result in an app store that is as politically sterile as possible. I.e. not very useful. As pretty much anyone will try to claim that allowing any given app to remain available will lead to the next Hitler / Bin Laden / General Lee / etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 7:04am

        Re: Re: Mixed feelings

        "Trying to claim that Godwin's Law justifies exclusion will only result in an app store that is as politically sterile as possible."

        That's...a flawed assumption. Godwin himself has backed down from that law and so instead the philosophy of the day is Karl Popper's Paradox of Tolerance.

        When I go into ANY store, if I see Nazi paraphernalia, confederacy flags or anti-gay greeting cards, then I turn around and leave that store and franchise. Because if you remain sitting at the same table as 5 nazis and say or do nothing then that's a table with 6 nazis sitting at it.

        I fully expect an app store not to tolerate applications manifestly designed to other entire demographics. Hell, I consider that the bare minimum for any store which wants my business.

        Because you are what you sell. Putting up a product for sale is an endorsement. It's that simple.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 9 May 2021 @ 1:42am

      Re: Mixed feelings

      Plus, of course, the entire purpose of the app is lazy anti-Chinese nationalism. An intelligent, motivated person who wished to ensure that you just don't install any such app. Go through what you have installed and look at the developer information or list of objectionable developers (which is presumably what the app is doing), remove what you don't want and then perform proper due diligence on anything you install in future.

      Unless I'm missing something, the app is just replacing personal responsibility.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 6:55am

        Re: Re: Mixed feelings

        "Unless I'm missing something, the app is just replacing personal responsibility."

        Well, it is also sending a message - "Here, we built you an AV against China".

        And that message is something else because a direct analogy would be "Here, have an app guaranteeing your device is never stained by anything built by <insert minority here> people".

        I can imagine 30% of americans might be fond of an app removing material constructed or supportive of other people. You know...black, gay, trans, atheist, muslim...that sort of thing.

        For those people the option to install such an app naturally exists, but Google is probably smart not to reserve a slot in their mall for racists and bigots the remaining 70% of americans would find outrageous.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 10 May 2021 @ 7:35am

      Re: Mixed feelings

      "As long as Google (or Apple..., etc.) is running an app store, and to any extent at all exercising discretion about what apps are offered, they're - to that limited degree - endorsing the apps and app developers in the store."

      You forgot the important part here, I think. AS long as you can sideload an .apk without using the store as intermediate it's really up to Google and Apple how they stock the shelves of their own store.

      Android natively allows the user to allow off-store apps to be installed with the flip of a switch. Apple may require jailbreaking but that procedure's pretty well established by now.

      I think Google is on solid ground here. Those who want to clean their phones of anything chinese can still sideload that app, the same way they can sideload an app which removes all black content, jewish content, or etc, as provided in your example.

      What Google has said here is "No racism in our mall. Set up your stall anywhere which isn't our property.".

      This sounds pretty fair to me.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2021 @ 6:14am

        Re: Re: Mixed feelings

        Apple may require jailbreaking but that procedure's pretty well established by now.

        That Apple devices require this, or that it's a "known" procedure doesn't make it Apple approved. That's a step away from "having an official sideload method means the manufacturer can do what they want with their store." and straight into "you must break IP law to use software we don't put in our store." Google may have an out here with sideloading, but any such enforcement on Apple's side is censorship on a massive scale.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 6:41am

          Re: Re: Re: Mixed feelings

          "Google may have an out here with sideloading, but any such enforcement on Apple's side is censorship on a massive scale."

          I'm no fan of Apple. Steve Jobs was the quintessential BOFH who decided to design a device which treated every user as a dumb sheep who needed to be protected from their own technical ineptitude by an OS hardwired to assume the device owner is a self-destructive moron.
          Mental scarring from my own DBA days means I can to some extent sympathize with this view.

          Doesn't mean I think this is the best way forward nor that Apple are being clever in their approach, the rise of Android in the market having made it abundantly clear that there are plenty of people unwilling to be the sheep overpaying for patronizing bling.

          I do, however, support both Google's and Apple's right to set the rules for who gets to set up a stall in their shopping mall. That's not censorship any more than the bar owner "censors" the redneck chanting anti-asian slurs by tossing him out.

          "...and straight into "you must break IP law to use software we don't put in our store.""

          Which is, you know, legit. If Apple still owned the vast majority of the smartphone market this would be a problem for antitrust to deal with. But they don't. Apple can, like any other vendor out there, be the sole curator of what they choose to stock in their inventory. The same way you can't reasonably tell wal-mart they have to stock tiki torches and confederate flags.

          That Apple, by choosing to force users to conform to their arbitrary standards, may be motivating a lot of customers to buy Android instead, is harm done to Apple and Apple alone, by Apple. The consumer can shrug and say "screw it, I'll grab a cheaper and better Moto, Xiaomi, HTC or Samsung instead".

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Taska Louwenskie, 9 May 2021 @ 9:20pm

    Populist movement in action

    The world has seen so much populism in recent years. Tech is no exception. These guys are just trying to capitalize on a trending sentiment in the hope to benefit financially and morally.
    For Google, it has to take actions or else jail breakers may come to broad daylight and starting removing pre-installed Google apps.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2021 @ 6:21am

      Re: Populist movement in action

      For Google, it has to take actions or else jail breakers may come to broad daylight and starting removing pre-installed Google apps.

      No app, nor the user, can remove a preinstalled app without root access, where it came from, sideload or Google Play, is irrelevant. Google Play doesn't allow apps that root a device by themselves. So this action by them doesn't change anything on that front.

      All it does do is say to app developers: "We're going to enforce our morality on our store. If you want to use our store you had best keep your apps up-to-date with our whims."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 6:49am

        Re: Re: Populist movement in action

        "All it does do is say to app developers: "We're going to enforce our morality on our store. If you want to use our store you had best keep your apps up-to-date with our whims.""

        Which is quite fair. You don't get to tell your local bar owner he has to stock Mongolian Airag or original Czech Budweiser. The bar owner may be considered wasteful if they choose not to stock what many customers actually want but there's certainly no moral or ethical argument against the bar owner being the sole curator of their inventory.

        Similarly Apples and Google's play store T&C's are only a problem if there are no alternatives on the market - which there is. Android allows sideloading without a whimper of protest and when it comes to Apple...well, I guess you can always choose to buy any of the dozens of Android brands instead.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 6:28am

      Re: Populist movement in action

      "For Google, it has to take actions or else jail breakers may come to broad daylight and starting removing pre-installed Google apps."

      I don't know whether Google has even considered that a threat or not, but I do know that an app promising to remove an ethnicity from a device should get removed under Googles normal ToS anyway.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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