Google Play’s crazy automated app review process strikes again.
This time, the puritan robot overlords that run the Play Store briefly decided that listing support for common subtitle files is enough to get your app banned. The developer for Just (Video) Player posted their story to Hacker News, writing in the app’s bug tracker, “After a tiny unrelated description update, Just Player got suspended from the Google Play Store for “Sexual Content and Profanity policy“. Google finds issues with following: Full description (en_US): “* Subtitles: SRT, SSA, ASS, TTML, VTT.””
Yes, just listing standard video player features like support for the “ASS” subtitle format was apparently enough to temporarily earn a suspension. The developer says they “immediately filed an appeal” and today, the app is back up with the ASS subtitle listing still in the description.
We ended up with a “.ass” filetype thanks to the anime subtitling community. Unsatisfied with bog-standard SRT files, the community came up with the “Sub Station Alpha” subtitle editor and two file types. The first three versions all used a namesake “.ssa” filetype, and then version four and above created “Advanced Sub Station Alpha” files, or “.ass.” While the editor is abandonware, the .ass filetype lives on, and compared to SRT, you get advanced features like subtitle styling, precise subtitle placement, and karaoke-style graphics. ASS files are supported by most good video players, including VLC and Google’s own Android video player library, Exoplayer.
It’s good that Google reinstated the app, but it’s crazy that a suspension happened in the first place, and this is just another story in the unstable relationship developers have with Google’s automated app review process.
The robot overlords of the Google Play Store
Google gets a lot of criticism from developers for the lack of human involvement in its app review process, with the Play Store instead opting for automated scanning of apps for viruses, policy violations, and other bannable offenses. Saying Google’s app review bots “ban first and ask questions later” would actually be an improvement over the current situation, since the bots can’t ask questions. The bots ban, send an automated email, and it’s up to the developers to figure out why they were banned and jump through hoops to make the bots happy, often without being able to speak to a human.
Google and Apple both collect a percentage of app sales, which the companies categorize as a necessary tax that pays for the infrastructure of the store ecosystem. Apple uses this money partly to hire an army of human app reviewers, a system that Google Play developers often hold up as an example that Google should follow. Instead, Google only has this bot system—or at best, it has an extremely small team of manual reviewers—and developers frequently complain that they are at the mercy of an illogical bot, with no human to speak to even during an appeals process.
Google Play app developer Magic Frame Studios echos many of the common complaints in a blog post, saying, “We work to develop applications for an unfair system governed by Bots that simply treat us like garbage. We fight against unfair bans, unfairly closed accounts and you can never ever learn from your mistake to have a better application.” The developer says that if your app gets banned, “nobody clearly tells you why your app has been banned, and if nobody clearly tells you what the problem is with your app, how can you solve it? You just can’t.”
Google’s bots have had a particular problem with apps that show Web content, often banning browsers, Reddit apps, or forum apps for things like nudity or hate speech because those are both things that exist on the Internet.
Google’s apps are all immune from these illogical bans, and bigger companies like Facebook no doubt have access to better support than your average developer would get. The people most affected by Google’s app enforcement bots are small indie developers, which can have their entire incomes stripped away because of a bot mistake. Google wants developers to build a business and a livelihood on Google Play, but when it’s such an unstable, illogical platform, that’s a tough way to run a business.