Google just published a major update to the Play Store Developer Content Policy, and whether you're a user or developer, you need to be aware of these changes. The content policy is basically Google's "this is what we don't allow on the Play Store" list. As such, you can understand why it's important. Google periodically updates this policy, but this is the biggest change I think we've seen yet - tons of areas have been touched on and modified, and there are significant ramifications to these changes. Let's break it down, starting with the one you're probably here for.

Note: These changes go into effect on the Play Store in 30 days for existing apps, which is September 23rd, 2013, and immediately for new apps published today forward.

Google Kills AirPush and other notification advertisements - for real this time

Google gets upset when apps use the notification bar for advertisements. And this time, it has explicitly laid the hammer down on such services.

Apps and their ads must not display advertisements through system level notifications on the user’s device, unless the notifications derive from an integral feature provided by the installed app. (e.g., an airline app that notifies users of special deals, or a game that notifies users of in-game promotions).

Boom. Yes, apps still can display promotions or deals that directly lead back to the app displaying them, if they are a part of an integral feature of that app. The airline deal example is pretty much what that means. If it's not explicitly, directly, absolutely something that involves the user doing / buying something in your app that relates to said app, it's not OK. No more notification bar ads, essentially.

This differs from the old policy, which was "Ads must not simulate or impersonate system notifications or warnings." Simulate and impersonate are important words - if it explicitly identified itself as an ad, it was still OK (that's how AirPush survived). Not anymore.

The content policy now applies to developer name and website, not just the iconography / content / ads / UGC in your app.

This may not seem important, but it is. Previously, the content policy did not apply to these two items, both of which could readily be abused by impersonating another developer or company. Now, Google can suspend developer accounts or apps on the basis of content policy violations in the developer name or linked website. This is both good and bad. Here's the policy, with the new portion bolded:

Our content policies apply to any content your application displays or links to, including any ads it shows to users and any user-generated content it hosts or links to. Further, they apply to any content from your developer account which is publicly displayed in Google Play, including your developer name and the landing page of your listed developer website.

The good side is that developers attempting to impersonate another developer or company, either through their developer name or website, can be punished and suspended for this behavior.

The bad side is that this gives big companies a heck of a lot more room to complain if they believe a developer's name or website infringes on their copyright or trademark, and they can now point to this policy when they file a complaint. The new policy makes sense, but it obviously has a potential downside in that sense.

Hate speech now seems to cover a slightly broader array of content

Hate speech used to actually require an app show or support hatred of one of the listed categories / groups, but that definition appears slightly expanded with a change in word choice. The listed groups are the same as before, but  "we don't allow the promotion of hatred based on their..." has been changed to read as "we don't allow the content advocating against groups of people based on their..." I read this new wording as slightly broader than the old one, in that it removes the somewhat ambiguous "hatred" requirement. Hard to say how that'll play out in terms of interpretation, but that's my inclination on the purpose of the change.

Apps that impersonate other apps / services / entities are getting a significant crackdown

The following clause was added to the impersonation or deceptive behavior section:

Products must not contain false or misleading information in any content, title, icon, description, or screenshots.

Along with the content policy now including developer names and websites, this part of the policy is clearly moving in the same direction: if you pretend to be someone else, you're going to get your app pulled or account suspended. The inclusion of titles, icons, descriptions, and screenshots pretty much covers all the bases here. And, hopefully, this means a tiny little disclaimer in the app description won't provide a way for scumbag ad scammers to skate by the policy anymore.

Apps cannot publish or disclose your contacts lists if they are not public

This is a small one, but the personal and confidential information section has been updated to include "non-public contact lists" as forbidden to be disclosed or published by apps without explicit user authorization. This makes a lot of sense.

Drugs are bad, mkay?

Google apparently got enough questions about the "don't do illegal things on your app" section (I mean, that's basically all it said) that they now provide an example of an illegal activity: "such as the sale of prescriptions drugs without a prescription." Right!

Crackdown on shady in-app purchases, quasi-gambling, and "play for prizes" games

Google already forbids gambling in apps on the Play Store, but now it's gone a[n important] step further in this policy. "Games of skill that offer prizes of cash or other value" now fall under the gambling umbrella, and that's bad news for big game publishers looking to push IAPs across the gambling / real-world prize threshold. How exactly Google will choose to interpret this policy is the big question, because prizes of "other value" isn't exactly clear cut, though I'm sure that's intentional.

What has value? That's the five dollar question. Either way, don't expect games from the likes of Zynga or Glu offering cash or prizes for play to pop up on the Play Store any time soon.

What doesn't Google want apps to do to devices? A lot more, courtesy of the System Interference section

Google has added a whole new section called "System Interference" to describe app behaviors that are forbidden. Some of these are taken from older policies in other sections, but they're now consolidated into one big, happy family.

  • An app downloaded from Google Play (or its components or derivative elements) must not make changes to the user’s device outside of the app without the user’s knowledge and consent.

This one's pretty obvious, and pretty broad. Don't mess with stuff unless people know you're doing it. Google elaborates with the next bullet:

  • This includes behavior such as replacing or reordering the default presentation of apps, widgets, or the settings on the device. If an app makes such changes with the user’s knowledge and consent, it must be clear to the user which app has made the change and the user must be able to reverse the change easily, or by uninstalling the app altogether.

Again, pretty elementary stuff. Don't change stuff someone can't easily un-change, and make sure that someone knows it's your app making the changes. How Google will enforce this, I'm not sure, because that's not exactly something you know an app is doing until you actually, you know, use it.

  • Apps and their ads must not add homescreen shortcuts, browser bookmarks, or icons on the user’s device as a service to third parties or for advertising purposes.

This clause used to include "without the user's consent," and was located in a different section. Not anymore. You cannot place homescreen shortcuts, browser bookmarks, or icons on a user's device unless they relate directly to your app - period.

  • Apps and their ads must not display advertisements through system level notifications on the user’s device, unless the notifications derive from an integral feature provided by the installed app. (e.g., an airline app that notifies users of special deals, or a game that notifies users of in-game promotions).

This is the AirPush thing we covered in the beginning of the article.

  • Apps must not encourage, incentivize, or mislead users into removing or disabling third-party apps except as part of a security service provided by the app.

Tl;dr don't be a dick.

Spam and Play Store placement tweaks

These are pretty small changes, primarily meant to more explicitly discourage exploitation of your app's rank or rating on the Play Store. Previously, Google only said that "product descriptions" could not be misleading or loaded with keywords in an attempt to manipulate Play Store searches and rankings. Now, it's more specific: "Do not use irrelevant, misleading, or excessive keywords in apps descriptions, titles, or metadata." Simple.

The second part of this section that changed is also pretty minor, but now the policy expressly forbids using fraudulent installs to boost your app, and paid or fake reviews. And of course you still can't incentivize users into rating an app.

In-app purchases

The updates here are largely clarifications. Apparently some developers didn't think the language of the in-app purchase section, which requires all additional content, services, or functionality to be sold through Google Play's payment system, applied to in-app currency or virtual goods. Hey, guess what? It does! So if you're selling funny money or virtual swords and shields in your app, they need to be processed through Google Play. Same goes for additional content, services, or functionality, as before.

They've also clarified what purchases don't need to use Google Play payments, such as physical goods or outside services, or digital goods that can be consumed outside the app (like MP3s). This policy was there before, but it wasn't as explicit / clearly-worded.

Interstitial ads now need to provide a clear way to close them, without opening the ad.

While the ad section received a lot of culling of clauses (mostly because they're redundant with the new System Interference section), one thing was added. And it's a win for users, to be sure. Interstitial ads (ads taking up the entire screen) must provide a "prominent and accessible target" for users to close the ad "without penalty or inadvertent click-through." This policy was in place previously, but like the in-app purchase section, wasn't as explicit as with the new language. A "prominent and accessible target" is the important part - ads can't hide the ball and cause you to accidentally open them because the X is the size of a pinhole.

That's it. While there are a few more minor changes, this covers the bulk of the new Play Store Developer Content Policy.