My account (PC Mehanik) has probably been terminated by a bot after 7 years and millions of happy users, because of 3 in my opinion unjustified app suspensions. First one for the paid app version, the second one for the identical free app version and the third one when I tried to publish the “corrected” free version with IAP implementation. Of course I appealed app suspensions and later account termination, but it seems that it just didn’t get through the bot in order to get a proper human review/response.
My Google Play Publisher history
It all started in 2013 when I created the Google Play developer account and started publishing apps. I was probably a better audio engineer than a software developer at a time and also DB Drag Racing (car audio competition) European champion. My first apps were Disco Strobe Light (music driven light show), Sound Spectrum Analyzer and Woofer Box Calculator (calculation software for subwoofer enclosure).
Soon I figured out that I can be a successful solo developer, so I decided to develop more tool oriented apps and include it into a all in one toolbox app. I’ve managed to publish app named Smart Tools — Utilities that included 40 handy tools like ruler, bubble level, speedometer, DB meter, compass… It was a successful app with thousands of daily downloads 2014–2021. It was a free app with ads, but on a halfway I decided to publish a second, identical, but ad-free paid app named Smart Tools — Utilities PRO.
Automatic app suspensions without a warning
I was aware of the issues with Google’s bots suspending apps and accounts without warning, so I tried to be very careful with things like app description, using only reputable ad networks… I was also reading the developer policy changes carefully after every update.
Unfortunately it just wasn’t enough and one day I received an email claiming that my ad-free PRO version of Smart Tools-Utilities has been suspended:
Suspended app means that you cannot fix it with an update. It means that it is gone from the store forever. Existing users cannot update or reinstall it and all of its data is lost. Of course I appealed the decision immediately. You can only appeal through a form and you get only 1000 characters to explain why the app shouldn’t be suspended.
I tried to explain briefly that the Night Vision tool is not functionally impossible to implement, but uses device’s camera to capture dark image and later with HDR algorithms detects the slightest change in pixel luminosity values. It works well in dark environment, but it is completely possible that it fails with complete darkness, low camera quality, wrong parameters, etc.
After a day or so I got an automatic response, claiming that my appeal has been reviewed and rejected, again stating that the app is violating the Deceptive Behavior policy with the tools that are functionally impossible to implement. This time, without the 1000 character limit, I replied to it with more details about the implementation and attached user experience pictures, taken in low light environment. I’ve also mentioned that there are numerous successful Night Vision only apps live on Google Play with good user ratings. Soon I got the following reply:
I tried to reply one more time, but soon I figured out that I am probably just wasting time with bot responses and decided to keep the free version only and implement in app purchase for ad removal. I probably shouldn’t have published a separate ad-free version in the first place, but I just didn’t like the Google Mobile Services IAP implementation, because the user can cancel the purchase and there is no way to know. Google Play developer policy also doesn’t allow usage of third party libraries for IAP monetization.
Trying to play it safe from now on
I changed the name of the tool in the free version from Night Vision to Dark Vision just in case, but I forgot to change it in store’s app description. Unfortunately after a few days there came a bigger issue: the free version with millions of downloads has been suspended as well, but this time because of Night Vision and Speed Gun tools:
That one shocked me. This was probably the largest and most successful toolbox app of this type on Google Play. The Speed Gun is also NOT a prank tool. It works by pointing the device’s camera center exactly at the ground below the moving object. With the accelerometer sensor data the algorithm gets the device’s pitch angle and by inputting camera height (user input) it can calculate the distance from the object. With the object following it can calculate the difference in distance and divide it by time passed, thus getting the speed. In case that the object is not moving exactly towards or away from the device, it gathers the compass heading (magnetic field sensor) data to capture the difference in rotation. The distance traveled by the object can then be calculated by triangulation.
At that time I knew that the appeal will not succeed (because of previous experience), so I decided to just publish a completely new app under the different package name and remove both Night Vision and Speed gun tools to be on the safe side in the future. Another problem was that as soon as it was removed from store, the ads stopped, so I was without income for millions of existing users. At least I still had Microphone, Sound Spectrum Analyzer and Woofer Box Calculator apps live, so I still had 10+ thousands of daily active users.
After creating a new app, I decided to firstly upload the bundle for the Alpha version only, so that I would be able to test in app purchases before putting it live. The review process took a few days, and after I was shocked again to receive the following email:
Now the problem seemed to be the Cardiograph (Heart rate) tool. It works by the user putting his finger on the camera lens and hold it still. The algorithm then processes camera picture changes that occur in pulses when the heart pumps blood and fingertip pressure increases momentarily. The algorithm is self adjusting, so even if you move your finger a little bit during monitoring, it still outputs the correct heart rate. If it is used in a right way, its accuracy is virtually 100 %. I’ve tested it myself on numerous devices, and as long as I was holding my finger still on the camera lens, I’ve never had any false measurements.
Finally I decided to remove it from the toolbox as well and upload another app under a different package name. This time it got approved and published live on the store, but of course the downloads were very low. I’ve also lost a lot of competitive advantage by removing some popular tools. There are numerous apps of other developers that include it, especially Heart rate.
Developer account termination
After a week of so I decided to report some of the competitor apps, because they were including the same tools that got my app suspended. Most of them were also violating other aspects of the policy. At the same day (coincidence or not?) I received the email that my whole developer account has been terminated because of multiple violations.
Of course I appealed. Again you get only 1000 characters to explain why your account shouldn’t be terminated. Soon I received the following response:
I replied with facts about my account history, details about “problematic” tool implementations, about the other unique apps that I had published… The email is quite long, here is just one paragraph:
It all ended with another probably bot response, and later I just haven’t been able to get any more replies:
It seems that there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve lost the ability to update and publish new apps on Google Play for lifetime. It is also not possible to open a new account, because the bots soon figure it out and you get it terminated too without a warning. The most shocking fact about everything is that it seems that there hasn’t been any human case review at all. I have a strong feeling that everything happens automatically.
I am aware that the store is flooded by deceptive apps and that they need to have some kind of a policy and take actions if someone keeps violating it, but in my case I think that the app suspensions and the account termination was unjustified. I did my best to play it by the rules, but some policy parts are just too common and subject to interpretation. This is why in real life we don’t have bots in our court system. It would also be very nice if you can check for compliance in advance or at least get some kind of a warning, so that you can take action before suspension/termination.
I hope that after reading it someone can point me in the right direction in order to Reinstate the account and get the suspended apps republished. I am sure that after the case gets human review, there is no reason to keep the account terminated. Please also feel free to share this open letter in order to get more exposure.
The final twist
After publishing this letter I tried to get as much exposure as possible, but it was difficult, because my Medium, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts are almost dead. Big thanks to Pablo A. Martinez, who listed this letter in his more popular one and also gave me some advice. I tried messaging Google Play support on Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore I found some developer program persons on LinkedIn and sent them messages, but the only reply I’ve received was on Twitter, claiming that they have already reviewed the case and confirmed the decision to terminate the account. However, after a few days, I was surprised to receive the following email:
They still claim that some tools like Night Vision are not allowed, but the main thing is that I got the account and the apps back. It also seems that they don’t like having a separate paid app version, so I will just stick with in app purchases. I am still not sure what/who triggered the new outcome, but I am very grateful and suggest other developers to follow similar path after something like this happens.