The latest app to catch an illogical ban from the Google Play Store is Element, an open source, end-to-end encrypted messaging client for the federated Matrix chat protocol. Google banned Element late Friday night, a ban that Element said “is due to abusive content somewhere on Matrix.” Matrix has millions of users, and as a federated chat protocol, Element does not control the content on Matrix, so this is a bit like banning a Web browser for displaying Web content. Element says it is working with Google to “explain how Element works and get the situation resolved.”
Element says it has a full-time team dedicated to handling abuse reports.
Element (which was formerly called Riot.im) is often cited as one of the best Matrix clients. It looks a lot like—and is actually interoperable with—Slack and Discord. Element says it is used by “the French, German, UK and US governments, countless universities, thousands of businesses and millions of people across the world.” The app has recently seen an influx of new users after WhatsApp’s announcement about Facebook data sharing, so maybe that triggered deeper scrutiny from Google. At press time, many other Matrix apps—which by definition show the same content as Element—are still active on the Play Store.
Google takes a 30 percent cut of all Play Store transactions, which is supposed to pay for the cost of running the Store, but the company doesn’t hire humans to primarily review apps the way Apple does, choosing instead to let the bots handle it. Apple recently cut its App Store tax from 30 percent to 15 percent, so Apple actually charges developers less than Google while also offering better human support.
Element’s latest update on the situation as of this writing said it has been waiting more than eight hours for an email response. Element says it was not notified of the takedown, which has now passed the 24-hour mark.
The bots’ interpretation of Google’s rules often make no sense, and as a result Google regularly bans random small apps from the Play Store because they can display content from the Internet. We’ve seen Reddit apps, podcast apps, and other apps that display third-party Web content all “win” the Google Play ban-of-the-week lottery, just because they can be made to display third-party content. The same is true of Google Search, Chrome, Gmail, all of Google’s chat apps, YouTube, Google Drive, and Google Podcasts, but those apps never get banned. Earlier this week Google banned a video app because it listed support for the standard “.ass” subtitle filetype in its description.
The one benefit of the Play Store is that you don’t have to use it, since Android supports sideloading. Element is also up on F-Droid, an all-open source repository of Android apps, though the version offered there is a month out of date. A more up-to-date version is on APKmirror, the Android hacking community’s biggest app store.
These bans are almost always temporary mistakes that are rectified after a few hours or days, but that gives little solace to app developers who can suddenly have their businesses ripped out from under them because of an enforcement mistake. Element says, “we can only apologize for the disruption caused by the app disappearing like this.”
Update: Element got in touch with a person at Google and says the app should be back up soon.
Update: we just got a call from a Google VP who explained the suspension was triggered by a report of extremely abusive content accessible on the https://t.co/g01j4u6O2e server. Our trust & safety team had already acted on it, and the app should be reinstated shortly.
— Element (@element_hq) January 30, 2021