Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends
The Chrome Web Store is in trouble.
It’s the home to over 200,000 add-ons you can plug into the Chrome browser, including some of the internet’s quirkiest, most beloved tools. But for much of its existence, it has also been in an uphill battle to eradicate the scammers and spammers that abuse the marketplace’s lax regulations.
While Google scrambles to roll out the fixes the Chrome Web Store urgently needs today, third-party developers have been busy waging a different war: To make sense of the marketplace’s rapidly evolving rules and policies. It’s a process that has left many of them getting blocked from the app store entirely by Google’s team of reviewers.
It’s been as much a problem for independent developers as for large applications like Pushbullet or Dashlane. One recurring thread ran through all the developers I spoke to — it’s beyond time for Google to be more transparent with its policies.
A grim transition for developers
The Chrome Web Store’s troubles date as far back as the Chrome browser itself. In 2018, Google began actively addressing and clamping down. The search engine giant booted off hundreds of extensions that had been able to run amok with little oversight. It also put in place a more rigid set of safety checks for developers including an upfront $5 registration fee.
These updates were long overdue. Over the years, rogue extensions have unlawfully cost Chrome users both their sensitive data and money. In March, a fraudulent cryptocurrency extension was said to have stolen nearly $2.5 million. A few months before that, a pair of add-ons, masquerading as popular ad block utilities, were able to mislead millions of users into an ad fraud and earn potentially “millions of dollars.” Most recently, in June, Reuters reported a newly discovered spyware effort breached the security of about 32 million users through a network of malicious Chrome extensions.
At the center of this overhaul is the Chrome Web Store’s refreshed data policy that is designed to dramatically restrict how much of your information developers can access. Unlike before, extensions can no longer request permissions that have nothing to do with the functionalities they’re offering.
However, the majority of these changes have arrived in just the last two years and the abrupt transition has been anything but smooth for developers.
Since the revamp, Google has wrongly taken down listings — often accompanied by generic and cryptic reasons leaving developers in the lurch to figure out the cause and prove their apps not guilty. Extensions have disappeared for days without a warning and a few of them never came back online. And for many, the appeal process has been nothing short of a weeks-long game of whack-a-mole.
The abrupt transition has been anything but smooth for developers.
Last May, when Google pulled Pushbullet, a productivity extension with over a million users, from the Chrome Web Store, the developers had to spend days trying to guess why it was removed. All the rejection email told them was that the add-on was in violation of the “Use of Permissions” section of the data policy. Even after scraping off a handful of permissions that would cut down their app’s functionality, the submission was rejected again and in response, they were sent the same automated message.
It was after Pushbullet’s blog post titled “Let’s Guess What Google Requires In 14 Days Or They Kill Our Extension” went viral, a representative from the Google extensions team was personally able to resolve the conflict.
Frustrated devs are giving up on their Chrome extensions
Not everyone has this privilege of a big-name app like Pushbullet. João Dias, owner of another popular Chrome extension, Join, was met with a similar rejection two months ago. Like Pushbullet, Dias was able to get its premier extension up and running through his media reach.
But his other, lesser-known extension called AutoVoice — which was taken down months ago due to identical reasons — didn’t produce the same level of public outcry and he had to discontinue it, at least temporarily.
Dias doesn’t understand why Google wouldn’t simply offer him the results of the evaluation. “Developers want their apps/extensions to work, so they’ll gladly fix any issues but they have to know what the issues are,” he told Digital Trends.
Dias isn’t alone. In the same month, another extension called Kozmos was forced to shut down as the developer grew frustrated with the Chrome Web Store’s erratic state.
“As a developer who actually worked hard to build software that respects people’s privacy, there is no way to request Google to correct the mistake they made. You can’t access any sort of contact information, you can’t ask for help, there is no support system, even though every developer is charged a 5$ initial fee for publishing extensions.” wrote Azer Koçulu, the owner of Kozmos.
An online thread for Koçulu’s post has garnered hundreds of comments from developers who have had to pull the plug on their open-source side projects due to the “developer-hostile Chrome Extension team.” The Chrome extensions’ official forum is swarming with complaints too from puzzled developers trying to understand why their extensions were delisted.
I'm pretty sure Chrome's strategy for removing spam from the extension store is to just reject everything and force the devs that care enough to fight it… Every single update I've submitted for my extensions have been rejected for nonsensical reasons. pic.twitter.com/pDlL20k9ve
— Sindre Sorhus (@sindresorhus) May 18, 2020
These are not accidents or isolated instances either. Hundreds of developers have landed in a similar quandary in the last year. Most of them have gone through a familiar experience: Their extensions were rejected and they spent days fighting the bots in the hope of reaching a human in the Google extensions team.
DK, whose cross-platform extension, Hide Feed, was on the verge of a takedown in March calls for the need for more transparency in Google’s submission process. “Most of the time, people make changes by guessing or asking for help in the Chromium Extensions forum,” he said in an email to Digital Trends. Mozilla, DK added, “does this incredibly well with their Firefox extensions,” as reviewers there closely work with developers to explain and clear rejections.
The problem is clear as daylight, but the solutions remain obscure without Google making an official statement on the matter. Google didn’t respond to the multiple comment requests sent by Digital Trends.
Searching for solutions
Some developers, like the veteran developer behind Search by Image extension, have even suggested there’s a legal matter to consider with Google’s actions.
“I think there is a need to explore the possibility of taking Google to court over censoring browser extensions through often unwarranted takedowns and rejections, which ultimately prevent developers from sharing their work with the world,” veteran open-source developer and owner of the Search by Image extension, Armin Sebastian told Digital Trends.
Other developers are looking for a more incremental step toward fixing the problems. One example is the team behind Dashlane, the popular password manager application.
“We would love to help develop a sort of ‘Trusted Partner’ program with Google for companies our size to provide the best experience for our millions of users,” a Dashlane spokesperson added in a statement to Digital Trends.
The problem remains that even high-profile extensions like Dashlane, which has over 3 million users, have had difficulties communicating with Google.
In January, when Dashlane’s extension vanished from the Chrome Web Store, the company had to resort to the community forum to seek a resolution. A Dashlane spokesperson says Chrome needs to develop a “sort of ‘enterprise support center’ for companies at the scale of Dashlane to have more active communication.”
An uncertain future for the Chrome Web Store
Based on conversations Digital Trends had with developers, Google’s Chrome Extensions team has always been woefully under-invested — with only a handful of employees responsible for putting out fires and keeping third-party devs from leaving the Chrome Web Store. Most of the documentation itself hasn’t been updated in ages.
“It’s not that people feel abandoned, it’s that they were abandoned.”
“There’s no recourse, community, or assistance other than one guy who works holidays, weekends to help devs,” commented Suhail Doshi who is building a new Chrome add-on and is the founder of the data analytics company, MixPanel.
One of the more active members of Google’s Chrome Extensions division, Simeon Vincent has repeatedly assured high-profile developers on social media that the company is ramping up resources for the Web Store.
Since I joined the extension patform and web store teams have gained engineering, product management, design, and other sundry resources
Who knows what the future had in store, but IMO there's a clear sense that the current state isn't good enough & a desire to right the ⛵
— Simeon – Black Lives Matter (@DotProto) May 18, 2020
Today, the future of Chrome developers hangs in the balance as they wonder whether it’s even worth pushing through. For a marketplace that exclusively depends on the work of third-party developers, Google has remained oddly tight-lipped about its plans for the Chrome Extensions team.
Speaking to the feeling within the developer community, Doshi added stated the problem outright: “It’s not that people feel abandoned, it’s that they were abandoned.”