We Need App Store Ombudsmen

At this point, it's no secret that companies like Google and Apple have too much power over the lives of app publishers. With a click of a button, an upstanding publisher (and their entire staff's) livelihood can be completely stripped away, and disputes from small publishers have little chance of being reinstated (unless they go viral enough to get some exec's attention).

To be clear, I'm not talking about the epic and ongoing battle between Epic Games and Apple. I'm not talking about app publishers with billion dollar valuations, bringing in millions or billions of dollars in revenue, or anything to do with the disaster that is the Basecamp/Hey saga. If they're making that much money, they can afford an elite legal team to deal with their problems.

I'm talking about small publishers who do not have resources to take on an all out legal war with the likes of Google or Apple. There are a number of examples of publishers who have had their small-to-medium businesses destroyed by our app store overloads.

Here are just a few examples, I'm sure there are more:

To be fair, there is no way to verify either side's claim. We can't say that Google was justified in removing and banning these publishers, nor can we prove the claims by publishers that they did nothing wrong. But this presents a problem because there is absolutely no transparency in these decisions. Take a look at this email below. An "associated Google Play developer account" could mean anything.

Screenshot of an email from Google Play Developer Support. Hi Developer. Thank you for your patience. After review of your appeal, we're unable to reinstate your developer account. Your Google Play developer account has been terminated due to multiple violations of the Developer Program Policies by an associated Google Play developer account. We've reviewed and confirmed the association. Google Play Developer account terminations are associated with developers and may span multiple account registrations and related Google services. Do not attempt to register a new developer account. Any new accounts will be closed and your developer registration fee will not be refunded. We recommend that you use an alternative method for distributing your apps in the future. Thank you for your understanding.
From 6Ace Games

App publishers need an ombudsman.

First, what is an ombudsman? An ombudsman is a position created, usually by a governmental body, with a significant degree of independence, but they can also be appointed by an NGO, a regulatory, an academic, or an industry organization. Ombudsmen investigate and attempt to resolve complaints through mediation or the make recommendations to the organization, up to and including formal investigation. Funnily enough, ombudsmen already exist in the technology community, specifically ICANN.

ICANN has an ombudsman who reports directly to the ICANN board, but they are not a member if ICANN staff. The entire purpose of the ICANN ombudsman is to be an "independent, impartial, neutral" party to "act as an informal dispute resolution office" to "ensure that members of the ICANN community are treated fairly." They use Alternative Dispute Resolution techniques to resolve complaints, act as a liaison between the organization and the members, and can make recommendations for formal investigations. Most importantly, they are not an advocate for the members. They investigate complaints without taking sides in any of the disputes, and they work within a specific framework and standards of practice.

App stores need an ombudsman; an independent party to handle disputes and complaints between publishers and app stores. Given that there is essentially a worldwide duopoly of app stores used by a majority of consumers, it's unfair to require or expect Jane Doe Apps, LLC who finally made 200k on her app last year before her account got banned for "being associated with" some nondescript Google Play developer account to pursue the same legal avenues for reinstatement as, say, billion dollar revenue Epic Games. At the very least, an ombudsman could provide transparency to publishers in the dispute and decision process.

For now, though, we'll just have to suffer on the whims of Google and Apple's app store legal teams, their policies, and hope we don't get wrongly "associated" with a developer who is actually breaking the rules.