Podcast Addict, an Android podcast app with millions of users, was briefly suspended over the weekend because it lists COVID-19 content. The app’s creator, Xavier Guillemane, tells The Verge that on Saturday, Google suspended and removed the ads from his nine-year-old app because it violated a new policy for developers that requires any app with a reference to COVID-19 to be “published, commissioned, or authorized by official government entities or public health organizations.”
After The Verge reached out, Google SVP of Platforms and Ecosystems Hiroshi Lockheimer clarified that Podcast Addict shouldn’t have been removed, and the team is working to reinstate the app, a company spokesperson tells The Verge.
“To ensure users of Google Play are getting authoritative and accurate health information, we’re continuing to take an intentionally cautious approach to apps with COVID-19 content—as outlined in our blog post for developers,” the spokesperson said in an emailed comment. “In this case we’ve reinstated the app and have communicated with the developer to ensure the app remains compliant with our policies.”
Guillemane’s app catalogs publicly available podcast RSS feeds, which he doesn’t control. The content includes news shows, talk shows, and a variety of programming that mentions the pandemic and virus. He says Google told him he’d need to address this problem and then republish his app under a different name to be reinstated. Guillemane says other podcasting apps, including Google’s own, list these shows, as well, although he doesn’t know what specific offending shows its algorithm flagged.
His app is free and relies on Google ads to make money, so when it’s demonetized, Guillemane also loses his income.
“This is the way I’m making my living, and already because of the current situation, our revenue has been really bad for the past few months,” he says. Google originally said it could take seven days for him to hear back about his suspension appeal, which means lost money all that time. “It’s not easy to be at the mercy of just some algorithm banishing the application.”
Listeners who already have the app on their phone could still access it, but they weren’t able to redownload it. New users also weren’t able to find it in Google Play. If Guillemane adjusted the app, and somehow removed all COVID content, he’d have to change the name of the app and lose all its ratings and downloads. He tells The Verge he was almost to the 10 million download mark when Google suspended the app.
Google previously demonetized his app for linking out to explicit content, which Guillemane didn’t host or create. The situation was similar in that the content is only cataloged by Podcast Addict, but Google punished the app and its creator for listing shows.
Of course, with the pandemic ongoing, people have rushed to make podcasts about the virus. It’s timely and important. At the same time, some people have seized the attention to spread misinformation, which Google is attempting to quash with its new policy. Podcast app developers, however, are just surfacing the content, similarly to a search engine, so they can’t necessarily filter out misinformation or individually screen every RSS feed and episode that populates. The policy might be well intentioned, but it’s hard to police.