Two words that no app developer wants to see from Apple or Google in their inbox: “account suspended.” Those words bring an entire business to a grinding halt. They mean no downloads, no ratings, no clicks and therefore, no money.
Joshua Browder, the CEO of Do Not Pay, a company that bills itself as “the world’s first robot lawyer,” is no stranger to this scenario. His app has been kicked off multiple platforms.
He recently tweeted: “When Apple took down DoNotPay and I tweeted about it, it was reinstated within 1 hour. When I posted that Facebook blocked our domain, it was unblocked in 1 hour. I’m lucky to have a following that gets these faceless corporations to act. How many developers suffer in silence?”
Browder is right that he’s hardly alone. There are dozens of threads on Twitter with tales of bans from major platforms without a clear explanation. And they are often liked or retweeted by hundreds of developers.
There’s data that shows the problem is widespread, too. In 2021, Apple began publishing stats about the volume of apps rejected from its store. The tech company revealed that it had rejected nearly a million first-time apps, booted about another million app updates and banned around 200,000 apps for what it described as data-collection and privacy reasons. Apple determined their code exploited “hidden” software features that the company didn’t want developers using.
On top of all that, 470,000 developer accounts were terminated. Apple says, broadly, that these terminations were necessary to protect customers from spam, violent or hateful content, invasive malware and fraudulent accounts. No doubt that’s the company’s intent, but what does it mean for innocent developers who mistakenly get bounced?
We talked to Ben Harrington, a partner at the law firm Hagens Berman – which recently negotiated a major antitrust settlement with Apple on behalf of app developers – to get some clarity. He told us how to push back against tech giants and offered some advice about pitfalls to avoid.
Step 1: Get up to code
Start with the first and most obvious step: See what might be wrong and (if necessary), fix your app. An app that’s no longer in violation of any rules can usually get back in business.
But that may take some investigation, according to Harrington. Often when an app is banned, it’s not always clear why. Harrington said that developers may find themselves in violation of vaguely worded policies that don’t really hint at what the underlying problems are.
Updating also needs to be undertaken with care. Updates “seem to trigger a re-review of the entire product,” Harrington warned.
Then there’s the issue of who’s doing the evaluations. Google Play has about 3.5 million apps on it, and the Apple App Store has about 2.2 million. That means the workload far outstrips what humans alone could handle. Algorithms therefore have a big role in the realm of app-evaluation.
“You have some program-screening apps, and it’s just not a perfect mechanism,” Harrington said. “Good apps are getting pulled for reasons that don’t make sense to human beings, and it’s something of a ‘black box.’”
Step 2: Appeal the decision
Assuming you’re a good actor who has no idea what in your code could be ban-worthy, what’s next? There are channels to file a protest – but you have to know where to find them.
Google has taken steps to make this process somewhat straightforward. The company offers an explainer laying out its multiple disciplinary categories, from outright suspension of an account – which means users are forfeited – to smaller penalties like warnings and rejections of individual programs. At the bottom, you can click to appeal.
When it comes to Apple’s App Store, though, the process is much murkier, but change is likely on the way.
“Part of our recent settlement with Apple is that Apple needs to better publish its process for app rejection appeals,” Harrington said. “They need to publish transparency reports, so developers have more insight into the process.”
Appeals can be frustrating and time-consuming. The procedure may ultimately come out in a developer’s favor, but the process takes time and in that time, the app is unavailable. No users, no downloads, no clicks – no money.
In the meantime, you can attempt to resubmit a repaired app, “but multiple attempts of a resubmitted app can also get an account suspended. So there’s risks there as well,” Harrington said.
Step 3: Sue 'em
Ok, we know you’re not looking to get litigious. And if company appeals processes can take what feels like forever, well, lawsuits are likely to take even longer (think years). Still, lawsuits could be what ultimately end up changing the game for developers big and small, and some are already in motion.
One major example shows that Apple will drop the ban-hammer on anyone – even Fortnite creator Epic Games. Fortnite, with roughly 350 million players, is not currently available on the App Store because Epic devised a way for its users to skirt Apple’s in-app payment systems, cutting Apple out of transactions. After the app got booted, Epic sued. The case is currently making its way through the courts, and until the appeals process is done, Apple will retain its control over iOS in-app payments, and Fortnite will remain unavailable in the store.
Meanwhile, Google is facing an antitrust suit from 36 states, accusing it of similar abuse of in-app payment systems.
In Harrington’s view, it will take more than one or two legal actions to make things better because the problem stems from the fact that these two companies are, in effect, the entire app economy.
“If there were different stores, they could compete by improving app review, by making things more user -friendly, and that would pressure Apple and Google to improve themselves,” Harrington said. “But there really isn’t pressure on them. They can do whatever they want, and they do.”
Step 4: Get the word out (a final Hail Mary)
So, without going lawsuit nuclear, what can you do? From Harrington’s perspective, there’s no clear evidence that social media pressure does much to sway Apple or Google.
But, he added, “it wouldn’t shock me that it would help if you can pull a few more levers.”
And, hey, we know it worked for Browder, who is not the only developer who has managed to succeed with this outside-the-box strategy.
Social media also appeared to turn the tide for BlueMail founder Ben Volach. In 2020, Volach and his brother revealed that they’d assisted a Congressional antitrust investigation into the tech industry. Two days later, they found their app was suspended from Google play. Volach vented his outrage on Twitter, saying “We’ve been there for 6+ yrs! If this isn’t retaliation due to our role in the congressional hearing, then what is?”
Subsequent tweets show the public appeal helped. “After 15 hours, BlueMail is back on the Google Store,” Volach tweeted. “Thanks for your support in getting the word out."
So, working outside the official system with a well-timed, well-placed tweet just might get you back in business.