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Google cracks down on Android spam with new developer policies

Amidst growing concerns about its unmonitored Google Play apps, Google has put forth a new, extensive list of policies and guidelines for Android developers to abide by. The move is designed to improve user experience on its Android platform by cracking down on apps that spam, scam, or mislead users, the company said.

In the updated Google Play Developer Program Policies, emailed to developers on 1 August, the company addresses issues plaguing its free-for-all app market, namely content strictures, spamminess, and ad behaviour. All new apps will be subject to the changes and developers have 30 days to modify existing apps to comply with the new policies, or face the threat of warnings or possible removal of the offending apps from the app store, Google said.

“We are constantly striving to make Google Play a great community for developers and consumers,” Google wrote in the email. “This requires us to update our policies when we launch new features, like subscription billing, and also when we see unhealthy behavior, like deceptive app names and spammy notifications.”

The document outlines predictable limitations on content - unsurprisingly, things like sexually explicit content, violence and bullying, and hate speech will not be tolerated. But Google’s new policies also specify that misleading apps are not allowed; “products or the ads they contain also must not mimic functionality or warnings from the operating system or other applications” and “apps must not have names or icons that appear confusingly similar to existing products, or to apps supplied with the device,” the company said.

The policies also go into specifics about dangerous apps, which is particularly important given the massive amounts of malware creeping up on Android devices as of late. “Don't transmit viruses, worms, defects, Trojan horses, malware, or any other items that may introduce security vulnerabilities to or harm user devices, applications, or personal data,” the document warns.

As for spam, developers must not “post repetitive content” or use descriptions that are “misleading or loaded with keywords in an attempt to manipulate ranking or relevancy in the Store’s search results.”

Google has also specified that apps must not “send SMS, email, or other messages on behalf of the user without providing the user with the ability to confirm content and intended recipient,” likely a reference to scams like the Angry Birds replica that robbed Android users of some £28,000 earlier this year.

The updated rules also outline regulations that apply to ads integrated in and bundled with apps sold in Google Play. Namely, in-app ads must not make changes to the user’s device without prior consent or force the user to interact with an ad before being allowed to fully use an app.

Google’s new developer policies, which have been published in full on its website, could go a long way towards improving app store safety and experience for Android users. But researchers have suggested that much of the danger stems from the existence of third-party Android app markets and Google Play’s lack of an app-by-app ratification process, unlike Apple’s Draconian App Store submission protocol. Until those issues are addressed, it’s likely that rogue apps will continue to pop up on Google Play.