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Google today sent an email to third-party Android developers regarding a significant change to its Google Play Developer Program Policies. The changes affect both apps and the advertising practices that many apps use.

The company explained that all apps and updates to apps published from here on out are “immediately subject” to the latest version of the Program Policy. Developers have been given 30 days of receiving the email to comply; if they don’t apps discovered to be in violation could be removed from Google Play.

The email summarizes the changes as follows:

  • Streamlined the ads policy, with guidance on interstitial ad behavior, and a new “System Interference” provision, which prohibits ads in system notifications or home screen icons, and requires user consent when an app changes specified settings on a device.
  • A revised hate speech policy that provides more comprehensive coverage, while recognizing Google Play’s role as a platform for free expression.
  • Clarification that the gambling policy extends to all games that offer cash or other prizes; that virtual goods and currency in games are subject to the payment processor policy, that incentives should not be provided to users to rate an app; that artificially inflating an app’s install count is prohibited, and that the Google Play Program Policy applies to all developer information or content made available on the Store.

Yet it’s worth running through all the changes to have a clear picture of what Google has done today.

Content Policies

First up, this sentence has been added:

Further, they apply to any content from your developer account which is publicly displayed in Google Play, including your developer name and the landing page of your listed developer website.

Under the Hate Speech section, “We don’t allow the promotion of hatred toward” has been changed to “We don’t allow content advocating against.” Under the Impersonation or Deceptive Behavior section, “Products must not contain false or misleading information in any content, title, icon, description, or screenshots” has been added, “Social Security” has been changed to “government identification, and “non-public contacts” has been added.

Under the Illegal Activities section, the “such as the sale of prescriptions drugs without a prescription” clause was added. Under the Gambling section, the “or games of skill that offer prizes of cash or other value” clause was added.

A new System Interference section was added:

  • An app downloaded from Google Play (or its components or derivative elements) must not make changes to the user’s device outside of the app without the user’s knowledge and consent.
  • This includes behavior such as replacing or reordering the default presentation of apps, widgets, or the settings on the device. If an app makes such changes with the user’s knowledge and consent, it must be clear to the user which app has made the change and the user must be able to reverse the change easily, or by uninstalling the app altogether.
  • Apps and their ads must not add homescreen shortcuts, browser bookmarks, or icons on the user’s device as a service to third parties or for advertising purposes.
  • Apps and their ads must not display advertisements through system level notifications on the user’s device, unless the notifications derive from an integral feature provided by the installed app. (e.g., an airline app that notifies users of special deals, or a game that notifies users of in-game promotions).
  • Apps must not encourage, incentivize, or mislead users into removing or disabling third-party apps except as part of a security service provided by the app.

Network Usage and Terms

The sentence “Product descriptions should not be misleading or loaded with keywords in an attempt to manipulate ranking or relevancy in the Store’s search results” has been changed to “Do not use irrelevant, misleading, or excessive keywords in apps descriptions, titles, or metadata.”

The sentence “Developers also should not attempt to change the placement of any Product in the Store by rating an application multiple times, or by offering incentives to users to rate an application with higher or lower ratings” has been changed to “Developers must not attempt to change the placement of any Product in the Store, or manipulate any product ratings or reviews, by unauthorized means such as fraudulent installs, paid or fake reviews or ratings, or by offering incentives to rate products.”

Paid and Free Applications

Under in-app purchases, this sentence has been added:

Developers offering virtual goods or currencies within a game downloaded from Google Play must use Google Play’s in-app billing service as the method of payment.

If you’re getting a feeling of déjà vu, that’s because Facebook has done something similar in the past.

Ad Policy

This paragraph has been scrapped:

It must be clear to the user which app each ad is associated with or implemented in. Ads must not make changes to the functioning of the user’s device outside the ad by doing things such as installing shortcuts, bookmarks or icons or changing default settings without the user’s knowledge and consent. If an ad makes such changes it must be clear to the user which app has made the change and the user must be able to reverse the change easily, by either adjusting the settings on the device, advertising preferences in the app, or uninstalling the app altogether.

In its place, this text:

Forcing the user to click on ads or submit personal information for advertising purposes in order to fully use an app provides a poor user experience and is prohibited. Users must be able to dismiss the ad without penalty.

Has been changed to:

Interstitial ads may only be displayed inside of the app they came with. Forcing the user to click on ads or submit personal information for advertising purposes in order to fully use an app is prohibited. A prominent and accessible target must be made available to users in any interstitial ad so they may dismiss the ad without penalty or inadvertent click-through.

Final thoughts

In all the other sections, the changes were largely cosmetic. Yet it’s clear from the above that a lot of apps will be affected by these changes.

“We recognize that some developers will need to change their app and advertising practices to comply with the revised policy, but we believe these changes will help ensure all users and developers can maintain confidence in the standard of apps available on Google Play,” the email concluded. “Our aim is to foster a high standard of app behavior, so you will be able to take advantage of Google Play as a successful platform to distribute your apps and continue to grow your business.”

In short, Google is further cracking down on apps and ads that ruin the Android experience. 30 days isn’t very long, but the threat of having your content removed from Google Play may be enough to get many developers to clean up their acts.

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