Users of Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari web browsers awoke on Monday to find that their apps had been altered.
Russian apps that perform a common function — updating Russian-language versions of popular apps like Instagram and WhatsApp — had vanished from the “in the Google Play Store” section on Chrome and from the “Safari App Store” section on Safari.
The apps were removed in both cases “due to violations of Google’s user agreement,” Google spokeswoman Elizabeth Gallardo told The Next Web.
Both apps are operated by companies called Skikalo. The “in the Google Play Store” section of Google Play lists apps that are about to expire. Skikalo was able to pass that process, but said it did not use any “special features” to acquire the app access.
“Sorry it took so long to remove your spyware,” said a review from an older app from Skikalo in Skikalo’s support section. “No special methods were used, according to the complaint that you posted.”
The Skikalo app stores user data — including personal information like name, address, and emails, as well as photos and videos — for Russians who download the apps. Google’s updated policy forbids apps from collecting user data for an inappropriate purpose.
Apple, which owns Apple’s App Store, in 2018 forced the iOS app for Skikalo to remove all specific data for users. Apple stated its policy that year that “no apps may collect, use, or transmit for purposes of advertising or marketing any information about the user without explicit approval by the user.”
The removing of the app led to backlash from Russian, Facebook, and internet users alike.
“If you operate an app store and allow developers to violate your own rules, your store is a platform of abuse,” one commenter wrote on Facebook. “This is just the latest scandal from the ‘internet,’ which is so paranoid about personal privacy.”
Google in a statement denied it was blocking Russian apps.
“Our policies allow users to download and use apps of their choice and we reject apps only if we believe they violate our policies,” wrote a Google spokeswoman, claiming the removal of the apps was the responsibility of the Russian company.
Facebook has faced increased scrutiny and criticism for Russia’s political influence on its platform during the 2016 presidential election. Earlier this year, a Washington, D.C., organization called the TechFreedom found that the companies were “immediately and rigorously blocking ‘free speech’ apps” that “promote political activism within Russia” — even if they never explicitly said that they support political activism.
Shortly after the TechFreedom report was published, Google made changes to its policy.
Read the full story on The New York Times.
Russia’s image among women ‘seriously’ hurt by its troll farm, survey shows
European Court of Human Rights will hear Facebook case
Google, Facebook continue to struggle with rising ad revenues and traditional advertisements