Google has begun the mass removal of apps from a major Chinese Android developer following a BuzzFeed News investigation that revealed it was committing ad fraud and concealing app ownership details from users.
As of today, 46 apps from Do Global, which is partly owned by internet giant Baidu, are gone from the Play store. BuzzFeed News also found that Do Global apps no longer offer ad inventory for purchase via Google's AdMob network, suggesting the ban has also been extended to the internet giant's ad products.
Google would not comment specifically on the removals, but a source with knowledge of the action said the company was moving to ban Do Global overall, and that more app removals would follow.
"We actively investigate malicious behavior, and when we find violations, we take action, including the removal of a developer’s ability to monetize their app with AdMob or publish on Play," a Google spokesperson said.
Prior to the app removals, Do Global had roughly 100 apps in the Play store with over 600 million installs. Their removal from the Play store marks one of the biggest bans, if not the biggest, Google has ever instituted against an app developer. Do Global was a subsidiary of Baidu until it was spun out last summer; Baidu retains a 34% stake.
After this story was published. Do Global issued a statement to BuzzFeed News that acknowledged and apologized for "irregularities" in its apps, and said it accepts Google's decision.
"First of all, we would like to extend our thanks to Buzzfeed for your articles. We fully understand the seriousness of the allegations. Therefore, after reading the reports about our apps, we immediately conducted an internal investigation on this matter. We regret to find irregularities in some of our products’ use of AdMob advertisements. Given this, we fully understand and accept Google's decision. Moreover, we have actively cooperated with them by doing a thorough examination of every app involved," the statement said in part. (Read the full statement at the bottom of this article.)
DO claims to have more than 250 million monthly active users for its apps, and to reach 800 million users through its ad platform.
BuzzFeed News reported last week that at least six apps from DO included code that made them fraudulently click on ads even when a user was not using the app. The apps were also listed in the Play store under the generic developer names “Pic Tools Group” and "Photo Artist Studio," hosted their privacy policies on Tumblr, and did not disclose they were owned by DO. It’s a violation of Play store policy to conceal ownership information, and to commit ad fraud. The ad fraud was detected by Check Point security, which responded to a request from BuzzFeed News to examine apps uncovered during its investigation.
Google removed those six apps, and claimed its internal systems had also flagged most of them for removal. Another 40 DO apps disappeared from the Play store this week, including 20 using the Do Global Games developer name, and 14 listed under Applecheer Studio. The apps listed different addresses and contact information in the store, making it difficult for the average user to see they were all owned by the same major developer.
Google often takes action against specific apps found violating Play store policies, but is less likely to ban large developers. After BuzzFeed News revealed that apps from Chinese developers Cheetah Mobile and Kika Tech were committing ad fraud, Google banned those apps, but did not take action against either company. Earlier this year, Kika Tech was allowed to resubmit its previously removed app to the Play store.
“As you have seen, we have successfully launched Kika 2019 in the Google Play Store,” Marc Richardson, a spokesperson for Kika Tech, told BuzzFeed News this week. “We are happy that we were able to work closely with the Google Play Team to resolve the previous issues and are excited to be able to give users a product that is fun, safe, and free for everyone."
In the case of Do Global, Google previously confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the offending apps violated multiple Play and ad product policies. The malicious nature of the ad fraud code found in its apps likely played a role in Google’s decision to take action against DO as a developer.
Full Do Global Statement to BuzzFeed News
First of all, we would like to extend our thanks to Buzzfeed for your articles. We fully understand the seriousness of the allegations. Therefore, after reading the reports about our apps, we immediately conducted an internal investigation on this matter. We regret to find irregularities in some of our products’ use of AdMob advertisements. Given this, we fully understand and accept Google's decision. Moreover, we have actively cooperated with them by doing a thorough examination of every app involved.
We would like to thank you again for your reports. Moving forward, we will strictly follow relevant regulations and continue conducting a comprehensive review of our products. Lastly, during this process, we have caused misunderstandings and great concern due to our being unable to communicate in a timely manner and provide complete information. We offer our sincere apologies.
This post has been updated with a statement from Do Global.