COVID-19 crisis

Google suspends useful apps addressing the corona crisis - our experience

First of all, I am pleased that, Google aims to act responsibly in the current health crisis: It is committed to block and remove YouTube videos with false claims, fights false news and rejects COVID-19 related ads – forgoing a lot of advertising revenue in the process. However, the measures are overshooting and we received a rejection of our legitimate app:

Google's COVID-19 suspensions

What has happened? We added a functionality to log common symptoms of a Covid-19 infection and to export them as Excel file to our Meal- and Activitity-Tracker, published an update and adjusted the description accordingly. From the reply, it was apparent that any reference to the Covid-19 Virus can lead to a suspension. The PlayStore policies state:

Sensitive Events

We don’t allow apps that lack reasonable sensitivity towards or capitalize on a natural disaster, atrocity, conflict, death, or other tragic event.

Here are examples of common violations:

  • Lacking sensitivity regarding the death of a real person or group of people due to suicide, overdose, natural causes, etc.

  • Denying a major tragic event.

  • Appearing to profit from a tragic event with no discernible benefit to the victims.

But neither do we capitalise on the crisis (our symptom tracker is completely free, without any ads), nor do we make emtpy promises without delivering: On our website, which we linked in the updated app description, we clearly explain the value of tracking symptoms via our app instead of pen and paper in order to cooperate with medical doctors, research institutions and health authorities. It seems like other developers are affected by exactly this problem. While restricting the search functionality in the Play Store might be a reasonable call, issuing suspensions without careful investigation certainly is not.

Official government hackerton

The German federal goverment even launched a hackerton to develop digital solutions for challenges imposed on our society by the Corona virus. A digital anamnesis with symptom tracking is explicitly listed as one of the challenges (Digitale Krankheits-Anamnese).

While cybercriminals are in fact capitalising on the crisis, and I am aware that manually reviewing apps, especially if in a foreign language, is a cumbersome process, I sincerely hope we didn’t get a suspension due to an automated check like this:

if 'covid' in app.description.lowercase():    
    raise SensitiveEventPolicyViolationException  

I hope Google considers the impact on small developers of not being listed in the Play Store anymore. In addition, Google seems to have shifted its workforce allocation leading to longer than usual app review times – which certainly has a negative impact on releasing digital solutions for the current crisis.

Google could do better

There are superior approaches: Apple launched a fast-track for reviewing COVID-19 related apps, having approved our update within hours. We are strongly urging Google to adopt a similar system and to reinstate our app and related apps, especially when they have been released by trusted developers.

Of course, we appealed to the suspension and will update this post once we get a reply. However, since Google is notorously known for being unresponsive when terminating or suspending accounts, we decided to proactively share this incident.

Fynn Leitow