What the gods of app stores giveth, they can taketh away -- and in the case of Disconnect Mobile and the Google Play Store, they can giveth once more.
After Google removed the malicious tracking and advertising prevention app Disconnect Mobile (download) at the end of last month, it's back in the Google Play Store on Monday following tweaks to the app's layout, but not how it works or what it does.
Google removed Disconnect Mobile on August 26 because it violated Google's developer agreement. Disconnect co-founder Casey Oppenheim published the email that Google sent him, in which Google said, "After a regular review we have determined that your app interferes with or accesses another service or product in an unauthorized manner."
The free version of Disconnect Mobile blocks mobile malware and mobile trackers from your Android device. A paid upgrade offers protection from "malvertising," or malware that's distributed through advertising networks. Disconnect makes other privacy-focused apps, including a virtual private network (VPN) app, a search app, and a desktop browser privacy add-on.
Google said in the email that Disconnect Mobile was in violation of section 4.4 of the Developer Distribution Agreement, which prohibits Android apps hosted in Google Play from interfering with other apps or Android services. Google's email did not specify how Disconnect Mobile violated that policy.
Oppenheim wrote about the fracas on the company blog two days later, and called Google's reason for removing the app to be so "vague" and "overly broad" that "even Google's own applications" could have violated the policy.
He told CNET today that even unofficial communication between Disconnect and Google employees in the Play Store and privacy and policy divisions, a service not extended to most Android developers, was unable to help clarify why the app was rejected.
"It was a very draconian process, very vague," Oppenheim said. "We asked for more information, and they didn't provide it."
Google did not respond to a request for comment.
The eventual solution, Oppenheim said, was to modify the app to make it clear that it wasn't an ad blocker. Blocking ads would interfere with one of the primary methods that Google makes money off Android. Even though Disconnect Mobile's goals as an app are to block malware and trackers, as opposed to blocking all ads, Google appears to have decided that the originally version of the app did just that.
The old version of Disconnect Mobile had separate paid upgrades for advertising and malware. The new version combined them into one.
Disconnect Mobile is hardly the first privacy app that has run afoul of app marketplace policies, or to have highlighted the tension between online privacy and online advertising. But as more people connect online with mobile devices, malicious advertising is likely to become a bigger problem.
Update at 6:50 p.m. PT to clarify that unofficial communications did not impact Disconnect's app alterations.