On October 1, Google began requiring all developers of paid apps or apps with in-app purchases (IAPs) to post a physical address to appear on the details page, visible to all users of Google Play. Hobbyists and indie developers, who likely have no physical address other than home, were horrified by the privacy risks. Much speculation ensued about Google’s “real” motivation. For most developers, however, a reasonably acceptable work around seems to exist, even if the extra hassle seems unfair.
Google Hobbyists’ Nightmare
Hate mail, threats, spam, stalking, piracy – it sounds like the developer’s own personal night terror. Blogs were full of fairly paranoid speculation involving Homeland Security, the FBI or the sort of commercial Darwinism that simply delivered developers of “crapware” over to the hands of an angry mob.
Google’s own explanation referred to consumer protection laws. Both the European Union and the Federal Trade Commission have recently taken steps to address the problem of children making unauthorized purchases with IAPs and the difficulty parents then face in getting a refund. The effort appears not to be intended to harass indie developers, but to protect children, or more specifically, to protect parents from their children’s purchases.
What is the Real Burden?
Banish the thought of the howling mob. The burden, although real, may be less than initially anticipated. First, Google’s policy applies only to the developers of paid apps or apps with IAPs. Apps that are free to the user, either because they are just free or supported by advertising, are not affected,
Second, although the governmental cautions were not limited to Google, the address requirement appears to apply only to Google app developers. Apple, MS, Ebay and Etsy have either taken no action in response to EU regulations or they are providing alternatives short of public disclosure of home addresses.
Third, it is not as difficult to get something that looks and works like a physical address as it may first appear. Although a United States Postal Service P.O. box is not sufficient for Google’s purposes, a mail box rented from Mailboxes Etc or the UPS Store provides a street address that is indistinguishable from a physical office address. Others advocate listing the address as c/o General Delivery and taking the extra step of picking up mail at the post office.
A Different Standard
Google risked government enforcement action if it did not respond to EU and FTC consumer protection directives. However, it has considerable legal latitude in the way that it responds.
If these actions were taken in the governmental sphere, instead of in the context of business, the issue would be whether the goal of consumer protection could not be achieved in a way that placed less of a burden on the small app developer.
But Google is a private entity. Although it may be more important in many people’s lives than the local city council, it is not required to balance competing public interests in quite the same way. It seems anomalous to many, but it is the market that performs that function in the business world. It's parents versus indie developers and, as yet, the developers do not have the market clout to tip the balance.