Here we are again. In our ongoing saga to provide digital wellness and productivity tools for your smartphone, we’ve hit another unexpected roadblock. This time with Google.
Our RescueTime Android app’s essential capabilities are under capricious threat by a poorly handled review system.
The essential issue
RescueTime measures and tracks how you use your digital devices so you can build better habits and be in control of how you spend your day. And a major part of that is seeing how you use your smartphone.
That’s why when we first launched RescueTime for Android years ago, we knew it would be essential to accurately track the time you spend on phone calls.
But the technical explanation for how we do this is where things get a little messy.
To track phone call time on Android, we must ask for the “SMS/Call Log permissions group.” These are two extremely different permissions. No one can imagine why Google grouped them together like this. But they did.
As such, in order for us to get the single permission we need to read and report phone call time, we need to request this bundled permission.
Currently, 2/3 of our Android users accept the permission request to enable this feature.
Yet despite that, Google’s automated system has decided this feature is not essential to our app, with no feedback, human interaction, or any explanation whatsoever as to how they got to such a conclusion.
This means we can’t even ask the user if they would like to enable phone call tracking!
Hey Google: is there anybody in there?
So how did we get here?
Google has added a review step in the Play Store app submissions flow for certain permissions deemed especially critical for privacy. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s an important step to bring better safety standards to Android users.
However, introducing a review step requires something Google (unlike Apple) apparently has little experience with or desire to handle well: Reviewing involves deliberation and communication between reviewer and submitter.
The only response we’ve received to our questions and appeals have been forms and automated communication. (There does, however, seem to be periodic human involvement every 3-7 days). Many responses include +noreply in the reply-to address. Hey Google, developer support is not like gmail support.
Even worse, Google’s system is bug-ridden (we had to wait many weeks just for them to clear bugs from their simple HTML form) and lacks any accountability, escalation information, or clear communication pathways.
It’s unclear whether our app has even been trialed in the course of assessing whether we should be able to request these permissions—a step Apple always includes.
We get a pseudo form response that suggests “you may qualify under [fill in the blank] permission exemption.” But the only response to our adjusted submission is some kind of auto-rejection as if the prior advisement meant nothing. This also happens so quickly that it must be based on some automated scan.
Compared to Apple’s App Store Connect system, where all communication is centralized, logged, and reviewable by developer and reviewers alike, Google’s is a leaky black box with no obvious way out for someone trapped in it.
How do you assess an app’s use of a privilege if you don’t try the app?
Annoying automated responses aside, saying a feature is “essential to core functionality” is clearly a subjective measure and cannot be guessed from a few text descriptions.
This is why Apple asks for a trial account with reasonable settings for the reviewer to trial in the course of their review.
Regardless of the outcome, any issues we sorted out with Apple were based on real people really trying to map policy to practice, understanding that a great deal of subjective interpretation is involved and engaging us in a conversation.
In this regard, Google’s development support has failed.
What does this mean to the future of RescueTime for Android?
As it stands, Google’s system has fully blocked us from any releases, unless we completely remove phone call tracking from our app.
Despite ongoing efforts, we have received zero communication from a human regarding their policy or their attempts to validate our claims. We’ve been given no reliable communication pathway and seem to be out of options.
Our communications with Google have been so devoid of meaningful content we are starting to wonder if Play Store support emails are routed to an AI bot. (So why the long response time then? Maybe Google has put its diligent engineering into accurately reproducing human bureaucracy?)
Google needs to learn something from Apple here.
If you are going to introduce a level of interpretation into your review flow, you need to have a communication platform that tracks history and provides contact points. How else can issues get resolved?
We’re obviously frustrated with how this situation with Google is unfolding but will continue to push on as best we can. Thank you for your patience and support!
Here’s how you can help
Google claims to be taking digital wellness seriously in their media efforts. Is it just greenwash? You can share this post, or make your own comments and tag us @rescuetime and Google @googleplaydev and @androiddev referencing our app’s id “com.rescuetime.android”.
If you are feeling extra saucy, fire an email to “firstname.lastname@example.org”.