Google’s weirdly pedantic Play Store crusade against all things ‘free’ is somehow getting even more ridiculous

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Bad translations and a semantically imprecise crackdown are causing issues for open source software on the Play Store


Independent developers have struggled with Google’s Play Store developer support for years. The company recently claims to be doing more to make things better, with more real people and fewer automated tools on the other side of their appeal, but Android apps. You may be doing more in your role as a toll collector. Unfortunately for at least one developer, the company’s reliance on automated tools has been hit again. It seems that Google has mistakenly flagged open source apps because it relies on machine translation as part of a new battle for the word “free.” The F-Droid semi-official Nearby app also ran into problems.


The first app in question is Catima, which is a simple loyalty card and ticket manager. It’s free, open source, and popular in its niche — with over 10,000 downloads and an impressive 5.0 rating with 139 reviews. It’s still available on the Play Store and hasn’t been removed, but the developers behind it tell a month-long story about the app’s title and the use of the word “free” (more accurately, no use). It is documented. .. “

Previously, the app was called “Catima — The Libre Card Wallet” on the Play Store, but it was a similarly derived (and seemingly human-translated) name in other markets. Open source fans and engineers refer to the term “libre” in this context as the freedom behind open source software, with freely available code and the ability to modify it, as in the LibreOffice context. Should be understood as the intent of freedom. The project developer, Sylvia van Os, had a hard time translating the titles for each of the supported locales, and volunteers found the correct analog of “libre” in their respective languages. However, Google apparently didn’t give back.

Last October, she was suddenly notified that the app was “rejected” from the Play Store due to Dutch and Norwegian titles, but she says neither has changed for months. She believed that a recent review of policy changes could have led Google to misunderstand the Dutch word “vrij” and its Norwegian siblings. For free. You see, she decided that Google didn’t like the word “free” in the title. That’s because they’re usually attached to bad apps that are spam and poor quality, and Google is trying to make the Play Store look good. And for fairness, she can see for herself if the app is free. But why did Google flag Catima when it didn’t use that word in that sense?

Sylvia suspected that Google’s error was in the way the translation was performed. This seems to have been confirmed in a later title review. Google later opposed the word “free” when it wasn’t even in the English title, “translating even that version and doing it wrong. Playing with some of the titles Google disputed. The company seems to rely on automatic translation for title reviews in other markets. For example, the Dutch word “vrije” and the German word “freie” both mean freedom, like freedom. Openness and freedom, not free like the price. However, this distinction is lost in automatic translation tools such as Google Translate, which uses hard, fast word analogs, ignoring the inaccuracy and numerous meanings of the English word “free”.

This first title review caused a series of problems after Sylvia paraphrased two really correct titles. Other machine-translated errors flooded the inbox in the next few days as Google mistakenly addressed the issue with words such as: “Libre” and “libero” later claimed to have used the word “free” in the English title, even though they had never used it. Obviously, Google mistranslated even the use of the word “libre” in English app names.

A “bug” with the Play Store Console further compounds the issue, as the developer can’t save titles for all language localizations unless all of them are below the new 30-character limit, and she has to wait on her Bulgarian Weblate translator volunteers to come up with a “fixed” version for Bulgarian that addresses Google’s incorrect translation. (Humorously, the developer may have more human input on her title translations than Google employed.) Google even falsely rejected her app just a few days ago with a baseless claim that her app requires login credentials to review, even though it doesn’t.

The issues are mostly resolved now, and Catima is available on the Play Store under a new title, but this is an all-too-familiar saga for independent developers dealing with Google’s Play platform support. We reached out to Google for more information, as well as to explicitly confirm whether it’s using machine translations of titles for rule enforcement rather than human translation, but the company didn’t offer a response.

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Catima isn’t the only app that’s caught Google’s anger over the word “free,” though. F-Droid, the popular and open source app repository (seen by some as a defector Play Store alternative), says it’s unable to promote its officially unofficial F-Droid Nearby App on Google Play, due to its use of the word “free.” In this case, it’s actually the word itself, but in the same libre-like context of open-source software, and it’s not clear if Google understands the distinction.

The developers behind the app (who I’m told are tied to F-Droid even if the developer account doesn’t have that branding, it’s a long story) say they never received an email from Google about this issue, and just happened to notice it “by chance” in the Google Play Console — it wasn’t even in the console’s inbox. (Apparently, Google doesn’t even notify developers for reduced search ranking for these sorts of offenses now.)

After covering Play Store support issues like these for years now, I can’t help but be critical of Google’s support and review process. Whatever lip-service it pays in blog posts and announcements, for all its excellent developer documentation and events like I/O, the folks actually running the Play Store simply refuse to make the investments necessary to provide a high-quality support experience that developers can rely on. Unless your name is big enough to merit special treatment, you’re constantly at the whims of automated systems that fail to take into account the true granularity and gradients of any subjective review process. While we’ve raised enough of a stink in the past for issues like these to be resolved on a case-by-case basis, I sincerely doubt this is the last time I’ll be writing one of these stories.





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