Last week, Google quietly removed at least 46 apps from the Play store belonging to iHandy, a major Chinese mobile developer, and initially declined to comment on why it took action against the company.
Now Google has told BuzzFeed News the apps were removed due to "deceptive or disruptive ads."
"Our Google Play developer policies are designed to help create the best experience for users, and we explicitly prohibit deceptive or disruptive ads. When violations are found, we take action," said a statement from a Google spokesperson.
The iHandy removals, which had not been previously reported, are yet another example of Google taking action against a major Chinese app developer over ad violations, further raising concerns about the ad and privacy practices of Android developers based in that country.
iHandy, a Beijing-based company, filed documents earlier this year to be listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. It describes itself as “one of the world’s largest mobile application developers” and says it has 180 million monthly active users in more than 200 countries.
Google removed at least 46 iHandy apps, including selfie, security and antivirus, keyboards, horoscopes, emoji, and health apps, from the Android Play store that in total had been downloaded in the aggregate tens of millions of times. One of the most popular was “Sweet Camera — Selfie Beauty Camera, Filters,” which had been downloaded more than 50 million times alone. Google initially left eight of the company’s apps in the Google Play store, but removed three of those after this article was published. The means a total of 49 iHandy apps have been removed as of this writing, and Goole says its investigation is ongoing.
The Google rep also confirmed the removed iHandy apps are no longer being monetized using Google’s ad network. In its filing to go public, iHandy listed Google as its biggest customer in 2018, which suggests the Silicon Valley giant’s ad network is iHandy’s single largest source of revenue.
Simon Zhu, a vice president of iHandy, told BuzzFeed News that the company is in touch with Google and is working to get its apps restored. “It is an unexpected action from our point of view. We are trying to find out the reasons. Hope the apps will be back to Play Store as soon as possible,” he said.
“As we all know that in recent years, Google keeps improving policies and process to build a healthier ecosystem for users and developers. We are definitely willing to follow these improvements as a developer in good standing.”
These removals come in the wake of Google banning two other major Chinese app developers after BuzzFeed News identified malicious activity in their apps. Apps from those developers, DO Global and CooTek, had been downloaded more than 1 billion times.
DO Global’s apps were programmed to fraudulently click on ads, among other violations, while CooTek’s apps contained adware that violated Google’s policies by showing disruptive ads when the apps were not in use. CooTek initially avoided a ban, saying it removed the offending code and activity, but all of its apps were removed after Google confirmed it failed to do so.
Google also removed apps from Chinese developers Cheetah Mobile and Kika Tech last year after BuzzFeed News reported they were engaged in ad fraud.
It's unclear what kind of malicious ad activity was detected in iHandy's apps.
Richard Kramer, a senior analyst with Arete Research, told BuzzFeed News that Google’s initial refusal to share information about the iHandy removals could be related to the fact that the attorneys general of 48 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico recently announced an antitrust investigation into the company’s ad and search businesses.
“Obviously Google is trying to be extra careful and is walking on eggshells right now with the state attorneys general recent announcement,” he said.
The removals once again put the spotlight on the practices of Chinese Android app developers.
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence committee, previously told BuzzFeed News he considers Chinese mobile apps a national security threat due to their abuse of permissions and requirement to share data with the Chinese government when requested.
“Under Chinese law, all Chinese companies are ultimately beholden to the Communist Party, not their board or shareholders, so any Chinese technology company — whether in telecom or mobile apps — should be seen as extensions of the state and a national security risk,” Warner said.
Added a comment from Google about its reason for removing the apps.