After getting banned from the Play Store for "interference with other services," the Disconnect Mobile app is back online. The developers republished the app, making it clearer that it's not an ad blocker. They also contacted Google for more information on why the app was removed initially, but they haven't heard back from the company yet, which means there is still a chance the app could be taken down again.
The Disconnect Mobile app is built to block tracking that doesn't respect user privacy as well as so-called "malvertising," which is malware fed through ads, which may or may not require user action for the infection to occur.
Two weeks ago, Google blocked Disconnect Mobile from the Play Store, citing a breach of its Terms of Service that says apps shouldn't interfere with other services. However, the founders of the app thought Google mistook the app for an ad blocker, a category of apps that Google started banning from the Play Store last year, despite allowing the same type of apps on its Chrome Web Store.
While Google has been citing various breaches of service terms for banning ad blockers like Adblock Plus from the Play Store, it's possible that Google simply doesn't like apps that can block ads and therefore has the potential to affect its main business model.
As for the Chrome Web Store, Google possibly couldn't do much about the ad blockers there; barring them could cause a much bigger outrage and a potential mass exodus of users back to Firefox, which would still allow ad blockers.
The founders of Disconnect Mobile, which include a consumer-rights attorney and former Google engineers, say its app's main focus is targeting malicious ads:
"But our mobile product (like our Desktop product) is not an adblocker. Instead Disconnect focuses on protecting people from invisible tracking and sources of malware, and all too often these threats come in the form of advertising. In fact, some of the most privacy invasive data collection online happens through ads, which see you even if you don’t see or interact with them. And worse, ad networks (including Google) are increasingly being used by "advertisers" to spread malware. This increasingly popular tactic, called malvertising, is currently being investigated by the US Senate, and Disconnect Mobile is the first app to directly address it.
The fact is, we are not opposed to advertising and think advertising plays a critical role in the Internet economy. But we are 100% opposed to advertising that invisibly tracks people and compromises their security."
Besides blocking known malware-infused ads, the app also blocks tracking that doesn't respect the Do Not Track preferences, much like EFF's Privacy Badger browser extension. In fact, Disconnect Mobile uses the same guidelines for whitelisting apps that behave properly and respect DNT policies.
The founders of Disconnect Mobile have also started working with TRUSTe, a Data Privacy Management company, to develop transparency rules for whitelisting sites.
Chris Babel, CEO of TRUSTe added: "As consumer trust hits a three year low there has to be a way for people to browse with confidence online and know which sites they can trust. We're excited to continue our partnership with Disconnect to develop guidelines for whitelisting sites on Disconnect Mobile and rewarding businesses with legitimate websites and apps for their commitment to consumer privacy."
You can download the Disconnect Mobile app from the Play Store now. Basic protection that includes blocking of tracking that doesn't respect DNT is free, while malvertising protection is a paid in-app purchase. The app will require permission to use some VPN settings after installation. The app doesn't route traffic through a VPN, but this is how it manages to block tracking. This also means Disconnect Mobile can't work at the same time as another VPN app.