Google’s Play Store bans VPNs from interfering with ads

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An update to Google’s Play Store’s policies has revealed that from November, Android VPN apps will no longer be able to block or interfere with advertising.

The move has unnerved some users and companies, but others are not convinced it will have a big impact, while some are arguing that the move is actually good news for user privacy.

Why has Google made this move?

Google is not one of the world’s largest and most profitable businesses for no reason. It coins in vast sums from advertising on its platforms, and the natural assumption is that this change is designed to protect that revenue stream.

The amended passage in the Google Play policy states that “only apps using the Android VPNService base class, and that function primarily as VPNs, can open a secure device-level tunnel to a remote service.”

However, even these VPNs cannot “manipulate ads that can impact apps monetization.”

The initial fear is that the intention of this rule is to stop VPNs from offering ad-blocking services alongside their core VPN features. But it is a little bit more complicated than that.

In actual fact, the rule appears to be designed to stop ad fraud and to prevent services that portray themselves as VPNs, such as Facebook’s odious and now thankfully discontinued Onavo service, hoovering up user data to target ads at them.

What is the effect of the new Google Play VPN rules?

The new Google Play rules spelt out in the new terms and conditions are clear.

Developers of VPN apps are now required to declare the use of VPNservice in their apps’ Google Play listing, they have to encrypt data all the way from the device to the VPN endpoint, and they must also comply with Developer Program Policies, in particular those related to ad fraud, permissions, and malware.

So, which VPN providers will be impacted by the new rules? Not many as far as we can tell.

According to The Register, one Swedish ad-blocking VPN developer is slightly concerned that previous versions of its app might be affected.

Blokada’s marketing and sales manager, Reda Labdaoui, is quoted as saying, “Google claims to be cracking down on apps that are using the VPN service to track user data or rerouting user traffic to earn money through ads.”

“However, these policy changes also apply to apps that use the service to filter traffic locally on the device”, he continued.

However, even their latest version should be unaffected as it filters data in the cloud rather than on devices.

The DuckDuckGo Android Browser is another tool that could be impacted, according to Labdaoui. This is because it creates a local VPN service to make its App Tracking Protection block tracker server connections.

However, DuckDuckGo themselves disagree with a spokesperson telling The Register, “We don’t believe we’ll be impacted by the policy, but our team is continuing to review it.”

Nothing new

In actual fact, Google Play’s new rules are nothing new.

Apple’s iOS store has a similar rule, which states, “You must make a clear declaration of what user data will be collected and how it will be used on an app screen prior to any user action to purchase… Apps offering VPN services may not sell, use, or disclose to third parties any data for any purpose, and must commit to this in their privacy policy.”

There is no direct reference to adverts in the Apple iOS rule, but it does allow for the banning of apps that interfere with the running of other apps, which is clearly what apps that block apps are doing. It therefore amounts to largely the same thing.

For regular VPNs users on Android smartphones and other devices, there is, therefore, little to be concerned about.

All the VPNs recommended on VPNCompare will continue to work unhindered. Those that offer ad-blocking technology incorporated in the apps should also be unaffected as far as we can understand. If this changes, readers will be the first to know.

Our advice has always been that, while VPNs incorporating ad blockers is no bad thing, these tools tend not to be nearly as robust and effective as dedicated ad blockers. If you want a VPN and an ad blocker, it is, therefore, a good idea to get both separately rather than look for a deal that bundles them together.

Google has not commented on this change at the time of writing. They have, in the past, claimed not to be opposed to ad blockers but rather to be in favour of better ad blockers.

That’s a claim that is hard to swallow, but in this instance, their rule change does appear to be to the benefit of users, by stopping dodgy VPNs hoovering up data to generate ads, rather than an attempt to foist their adverts on all and sundry.

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 7 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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