As the European Commission turns the heat up on Google over allegations that the company has abused its dominant market position in areas like search and mobile to create an anticompetitive environment for other online businesses, another small startup has joined the chorus of those crying foul.
Disconnect Inc. — a B Corporation startup co-founded by ex-Googlers to build software to help Internet users block ads and other third-party services that tracks them or potentially releases malware — has filed an antitrust complaint against Google, claiming the Android giant is abusing its market position by banning Disconnect’s latest Android app, Disconnect Mobile, from the Google Play store.
“Disconnect charges Google with abusing its dominant market position by banning Disconnect’s app, a revolutionary technology that protects users from invisible tracking and malvertising, malware served through advertisements,” Disconnect.me said in a statement.
Unsurprisingly, Google thinks otherwise. The Android giant has issued a response to the complaint, calling the the claims “baseless” and explaining that there is a specific clause in its Google Play apps policy that Disconnect Mobile violates. In short, whatever Disconnect claims to do in protecting from malware, it also prevents apps from making money legitimately.
“This reported claim is baseless,” the company says in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Our Google Play policies (specifically clause 4.4) have long prohibited apps that interfere with other apps (such as by altering their functionality, or removing their way of making money). We apply this policy uniformly — and Android developers strongly support it. All apps must comply with these policies and there’s over 200 privacy apps available in Google Play that do.”
Disconnect Mobile, a freemium app (the premium version is $5/month or $50/year) that has been built for both iOS and Android, says it is specifically designed to protect against malware sites, identity theft by way of malicious tracking, and “malvertising threats” that are disguised as ads. The company claims that it’s not anti-advertising.
“We don’t oppose advertising and understand ad revenue is critically important to many Internet companies, publishers and developers,” Disconnect co- founder and CEO Casey Oppenheim says. “But users have the right to protect themselves from invisible tracking and malware, both of which put sensitive personal information at risk. Advertising doesn’t have to violate user privacy and security.” It cites specific studies that highlight the risk of undisclosed tracking in Android apps as one justification for its app.
Disconnect started back in 2010 as a side project specifically as a Facebook ad-blocker when co-founder Brian Kennish was still at Google.
Since then it has gone on to raise funding — $4.1 million (modest by Silicon Valley standards) from investors like Highland Capital and CRV — and pick up over 10 million users of its various desktop extensions and mobile apps. (In the process, the two ex-Googler co-founders, Kennish and Austin Chau, have moved on to other projects but remain “friends” with the company, says Oppenheim, who is an ex-lawyer and longtime privacy and social justice advocate.)
Google blocking Disconnect Mobile is not news in itself.
The app was twice banned when it was posted to Google Play last year. After Google threatened to remove its developer account altogether over the matter — Disconnect currently still offers two other Android apps via Google Play — Disconnect decided to take a different approach when it launched a modified version in November 2014.
Disconnect Mobile for Android is now offered as a sideloaded option through its own site, as well as in partnership with others. In Europe, it has distribution agreements with Deutsche Telekom as well as a preinstall deal with Blackphone.
But it’s likely that Disconnect Mobile hasn’t made up for the exposure Disconnect believes it would have had were it offered on Google Play directly, especially when compared to its downloads on iOS, Oppenheim says. (There, Disconnect Mobile might sit alongside hundreds of other security and privacy apps, but Google Play exposure still trumps the startup’s other distribution channels.)
Oppenheim says Disconnect is not releasing the full complaint to the public just yet, so we don’t know how many downloads it has seen of its Android app through the sideloading and preinstall deals.
Other details, such as what kind of compensation its demanding, are also not entirely clear, either.
“We want what the lawyers call ‘equal treatment,'” Oppenheim tells me in answer to a question about whether his company is seeking damages. “We want Android users to be able to get our products quickly and easily through the Play Store and we want to be fully supported by Google, just like other apps in the Store.”
Today, Disconnect is seizing the opportunity of filing a complaint in Europe at the same time as the wider EC-led investigation. But while it’s quick to cite studies from the U.S. Senate that highlight the hazards of online advertising with regards to data privacy and security, Disconnect Inc. is not filing any complaints in the U.S. or any other market for now.
Time, and the potential outcome of this complaint — which could either be combined with existing antitrust complaints from other parties like the FairSearch.org consortium and Yelp; or treated separately since it specifically concerns ad tracking technology; or rejected altogether — will determine if Disconnect engages further with Google on the regulatory front.