Google temporarily yanked Element’s Android chat app from the Play Store this week for allegedly hosting abusive content. The decision’s particularly baffling given that Element is only a client for the federated chat protocol Matrix and not a service in and of itself. Meaning that Element can (and does) moderate its own servers, but has zero control over what happens on the network that users connect to.
“[J]ust as Google does not control the content on the Web, Element does not control the content on Matrix,” Element CEO Matthew Hodgson wrote in a blog post published Saturday.
Google booted Element from its app store on Friday without warning or prior notification and restored the app late Sunday evening, Element said. In a Saturday morning tweet, the company said they’d reached out to Google and confirmed that the suspension “is due to abusive content somewhere on Matrix.” Element’s developers submitted a “detailed appeal” to Google to try to overturn the suspension, and it seems to have made a difference.
Morning all. We've had contact from Google confirming that the suspension is due to abusive content somewhere on Matrix; we're working with them to explain how Element works and get the situation resolved.— Element (@element_hq) January 30, 2021
In a blog update, Hodgson said a Google executive reached out and apologised for the “bad communication” on Google’s part. The suspension was apparently related to “some extremely abusive content” on the default matrix.org home server, which Element runs on behalf of Matrix, that had already been identified and swiftly dealt with by Element’s moderators.
“We’ve explained how Element and Matrix works, established a channel for communication over any future moderation concerns, and expect the app to be restored shortly,” Hodgson wrote at the time.
Hours later, he updated the blog to announce the app was back up and running again and thanked users for their patience.
“Thanks also to Google for being transparent and apologetic and the rapid resolution once we’d established contact,” he said.
But even though the app is now back in Google’s Play Store, its abrupt disappearance undoubtedly led to some headaches for the scores of businesses, universities, and governments, including the UK, America, France, and Germany, that use Element and the Matrix network. Google has previously suspended a third-party client for content beyond its control, as Android Police notes. In February 2020, Google banned the popular open-source Reddit client Slide for almost two weeks because a screenshot in the app’s store listing contained the text “ISIS” as shown in a news-related Reddit post.
Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. The incident with Element comes after Google and Apple both cracked down on Parler’s app in the wake of the Capitol building attack on January 7 for allegedly hosting violent content.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Google may have its hackles raised about content moderation and is going a bit ban-happy these days. And while this approach may be warranted in some cases, let us remember that not all apps are bad, and that some really are doing their best to fight off hateful and violent content.