The BitTube vs Google Play drama
Not long after the BitTube Android app was launched, it got suspended and removed from the Google Play store. Google claimed the app violated their sexually explicit content policy because it contained images with nudity.
After this, our developers have worked tirelessly to filter out such uploads. To ensure future violations are very unlikely, all sexual content has been moved to Adult categories only visible on xxx.bit.tube (warning — NSFW). It has been clear to the BitTube team that the app has to be even more nudity-free compared to the YouTube app, as we do not want to give any reason (or excuse, rather) for a strike.
If you want to get a glimpse of what we mean by this, open the YouTube app and search for example “hot massage” or “breasts” — there is no way you can find more nudity in the BitTube app.
That was the first time they unpublished the app. After reaching out to the Google review team, they accepted our appeal.
Not long after, however, we received a second strike. They cited the same explicit content policy, but this time something was off. As evidence they attached a desktop screenshot of the xxx platform, showing nude thumbnails, pictured below. It has nothing to do with our Android app, nor does it even show the BitTube logo. Their ‘evidence’ could just as well have been a screenshot from another porn site.
This time, they did not accept our appeal.
We have asked for more clarification about how and where they found such content. We have since gotten only the standard response, claiming that our app contains material like the one in the screenshot.
Suffice it to say, we dare the community to go and find any sexually explicit content in our mobile app and openly comment his/her experience. You can manually download and install our Android app following the steps in this guide.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… for a smoking gun?
Third time’s the charm. While writing this article, we had again gotten our app approved on the Play store, this time under a different name (“BitTube” instead of “BitTube Official”). It was a last-effort attempt to check if maybe Google’s system would give us a clean review, as well as one more test of the integrity of their review practices.
As you might have guessed, a few days later the app got removed. Again, with the exact same fraudulent claim that it violated the sexually explicit content policy, using the exact same screenshot from before!
This time, though, we stumbled on a key piece of information that we foolishly did not notice before. The username of the majority of the videos pictured in the screenshot is named “CryptoPorn”:
As it turns out, this user had changed his name to “Porn Crypto” (with a space, warning — NSFW) over two months ago. We can pinpoint this to two months, because around that time we started disallowing spaces in usernames. Additionally, the age of the videos shown indicates about two months have passed between now (pictured below) and when the screenshot was taken:
What does this mean? It means that the screenshot was taken five weeks in advance of the second strike, let alone the third! The same way that YouTube’s favorite line “upon manual review…” during a creator’s appeal process is demonstrably dishonest, so too can we now conclude that Google’s review process is a facade.
This leaves us with one question. Who made that screenshot, and who in particular keeps striking our app off the Play store? Is it a Google insider? Or alternatively, could it be a disgruntled third party? By continually flagging the app as inappropriate, Google’s non-existent ‘review’ process might have bought it each time.
Since Google has not answered our appeal here either, we simply cannot know for sure.
A deeper dive.
Our app’s unjust removal prompted us to do some research. Since years, developers have been pushed away from Google Play without any reasonable explanation. While Google claims to abide by its content policies, it is not always easy to understand why apps are removed, or submissions are rejected. In most cases, bots ‘decide’ to strike an app giving businesses of any kind a hard time to rely on their platform.
This especially concerns apps that do not bring in revenue to Google. Apps like BitTube cut directly into Google’s bottom line from multiple vectors. For example, in this case from 2014, the developer had to explain to his client why a free, non-commercial app for music sharing lost hundreds of 5-star reviews and over 50,000 of downloads. That is probably partly why, in 2015, Google began employing an internal team of reviewers to analyze apps for policy violations prior to publication, as explained in this in-depth Techcrunch article.
In theory, this would mean once your app gets the green light on Google Play, you are good to go. However, our real-world experience clearly tells a different story, where your app remains subject to arbitrary removal.
Do we really need the Google Play store?
For some developers, the answer is clearly “No”. Epic Games, the developers behind the immensely popular game Fortnite, chose not to publish their app on Google Play. By bypassing their 30% in-app billing fees, it is estimated that Google will miss out on at least 50 million US dollars of revenue this year, according to SensorTower.
The thing that makes Fortnite unusual is the expected size of the audience. Other major game distributors will be watching Epic Games and judging if Google’s cut continues to be worth it for them. This industry trend is further exemplified by major game studios starting to bypass Valve’s Steam platform, by publishing their games exclusively on their own platforms instead. Spotify has discontinued using Apple’s in-app payment system for new subscribers. Furthermore, it was recently reported that Netflix has been testing a new system since June that bypasses iTunes billing as well.
It should be noted that it is not the first time distributing games and apps outside of Google Play has been done. Humble Bundle and the Amazon AppStore both support in-app purchases via side-loading their Android app. Here is a long list of Play store alternatives.
Fortnite’s refusal to use Google Play may become a tipping point, reducing Google’s impact on mobile gaming. Much more importantly, though, it educates millions of young people about alternative methods, and shows that Google Play is not a mandatory requirement.
Big Tech and the Fifth Estate.
Our app’s unjust removal from the Play store proves that Google can do as they please. This should come to no one’s surprise. As social media is now controlled by a handful of ideologically aligned companies in Silicon Valley, ‘Big Tech’ is an acting oligopoly on a majority of online services that everyone uses. It is essentially an untouchable Fifth Estate (as WikiLeaks was once called) operating without scrutiny.
Google’s motto of “Don’t Be Evil” has been disproved in the recent past, but this untruth has been absolutely cemented for us by being on the receiving end of it.
To some, the removal of our app might sound like a misunderstanding, or not such a big deal. However, especially for highly competitive startups like BitTube, it is an incredibly big deal. Not being able to host our product conveniently on a mass consumer platform with the majority market share of mobile users, means our product is implicitly censored from the majority of its potential user base. Not to mention that all of this power is in the hands of unaccountable, most likely politically biased, millennial ‘curators’.
Additionally, native alternatives have been smashed under the giant’s foot known as “Google’s MADA and AFA contracts” obligating mobile device manufacturers to pre-install Google essential apps. We can further prove our troubles are not an isolated incident, as recently, Google was fined a record $5 billion by the EU for Android antitrust violations for these very policies.
Just as importantly, this is a big deal for every consumer. You, the reader. As has recently become known, YouTube and other social media platforms have been colluding in removing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones off the face of the internet, and ‘shadow banning’ conservative voices. We are not taking political sides here, but it should concern anyone that a handful of companies wield this much power over the flow of information that governs modern discourse.
It is essential that free speech platforms such as BitTube get a fair chance to thrive. As YouTuber Carl Benjamin recently pointed out, there is a (highly contentious) case to be made for Big Tech regulation, before the day comes where these things are properly decentralized for mass adoption — little does he know, that day has already arrived.
We are taking Google to Court.
In conclusion, we are taking Google to Court. It is the only way to get some real answers relating to the removal of our app. The EU’s antitrust case has set a precedent, and we intend to use its momentum to compound our case.
This might be the start of a long uphill battle. While we clearly do not violate Google’s content policies, we have received two consecutive unjust — and frankly, flippant — removals based on no evidence. However, we are positive that the issue can be settled, since the truth is undoubtedly on our side.
As we hinted earlier, there is a remote possibility that our app has been mass-flagged multiple times by a malicious third party. By bringing Google to court, the discovery process shall unveil this information, which will allow us to take the appropriate legal action if necessary. Although we have a strong ideological case against Google, we believe it is wise to wait for all the facts.
This concludes part 1 of our ‘app removal saga’. Thank you for reading. For now, we want to leave you with the following message:
To be continued.