Why We Had to Turn off Mr. Number’s Crowd-sourced Caller ID and What This Says About Android and Mobile Innovation
(This post was written by Mr. Number CEO Jason Devitt)
More than two years after we launched Mr. Number for Android, Google has decided that our app does not comply with their latest content policy and has ordered us to turn off our crowd-sourced Caller ID feature. Google has told us that you, our users, cannot share your contact lists for Caller ID even if you believe you have your contacts’ permission. Although Google approved the feature as recently as last month, we have no choice but to turn off crowd-sourced Caller ID for now, because Android is not the open platform that we thought it was.
We’ll continue to provide conventional Caller ID using information we license from commercial databases. Mr. Number will still be the best free Caller ID app on the market, as well as a full-featured messaging app and the most popular call and text blocker available. But we will not be able to identify mystery and spam calls and texts as reliably as we did before. If you were paying for the premium version, you will not be billed again.
We’re sorry for the inconvenience and we’ll keep working to bring back crowd-sourced Caller ID.
The Full Story — for People Who Want to Know
We launched Mr. Number two years ago to give you more control over your phone. We believe you have the right to know who is calling or texting you, and the right to block any person or company you don’t want to hear from again. But there was no reliable way to know who was calling you if the number was not already in your contact list. So we invented crowd-sourced Caller ID.
You may not always know who is calling you, but some other Mr. Number member probably does. When you opt in to crowd-sourced Caller ID, you let us look up mystery numbers in your mobile contacts on behalf of other users and we do the same for you for free. As a bonus, crowd-sourcing helps us to identify telemarketers, phishers, robocallers, and other kinds of spam so we can block them all for users automatically.
People loved it. We’ve spent almost nothing on advertising, but almost 5 million people have downloaded the Android version of Mr. Number and most of you opted in to crowd-sourced Called ID. Combining this with commercial sources we were able to return a name for almost 80% of the calls and texts our users got from numbers they didn’t recognize.
Mr. Number is now one of the top 200 apps for Android phones in the US, with an average rating of 4.4 from more than 60,000 users. It’s not available for iPhone because Apple does not have any APIs for Caller ID, regardless of where the data comes from, but almost 80,000 people have signed our petition to Apple requesting Mr. Number for iPhone.
Success brought competitors who offered crowd-sourced Caller ID to their millions of users. But Google has ordered all of us to turn off the feature.
Why Google Objects to Crowd-sourced Caller ID
Google contacted us in June with a number of concerns.
First, Google pointed out that your contacts haven’t consented to be in Mr. Number’s database. True, but your contacts don’t get to consent before you upload them to Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google itself. (Since Google can share data across all of its products, it’s not clear how Google uses your contact data.) Like Google, Facebook, Salesforce and every other app that works with contact data, we rely on your permission. In fact, we told you not to opt in to crowd-sourced Caller ID unless you had permission from their contacts and we offered a paid version instead.
By the way, anyone can control how they appear in Mr. Number or remove all their data from our database at any time by clicking “Your Caller ID” on our home page, without creating an account or writing to customer support or any of the hoops that other companies make you jump through.
Second, Google said that we were publishing private information: the names of people calling you. We disagreed. Telling you that the person calling your mobile phone right now is named Joe is not the same as making Joe’s phone number public. Joe has already shared his phone number with you, simply by calling you, and you have the right to know who is calling or texting you before you answer. And if Joe dials *67 to block his number, he blocks Mr. Number too.
Google accepted this and asked us to add some more disclosure language to our opt-in page, which we did.
Google Changes Its Mind — and Its Content Policy
A few weeks later Google made a subtle change to its content policy. Previously apps were barred from publishing personal information, unless authorized. Now they cannot publish or disclose personal information. Of course, all Caller ID apps disclose personal information. Google also changed its mind about authorization, telling us that you, our users, cannot share contact lists for Caller ID even if you say you have your contacts’ permission.
There is no court of appeal and we and our competitors have to turn off crowd-sourced Caller ID.
Why You Should Care Even if You Don’t Use Mr. Number
Android is not as open as we thought it was. We thought that Google’s content policies were aimed at malware and fraud. But no one has accused Mr. Number of deceiving users or doing anything illegal.
For users, it means that your favorite apps could disappear at any time.
For developers and investors, it means that at any time (in our case, two years after launch) Google can tell you to turn off key features of your app, regardless of what users think.
It means that on Android as on iOS, you need permission to innovate.
We could quit Google Play and ask you to download Mr. Number directly from our website. But you cannot install Android apps from the web without changing a setting on your phone and tapping through multiple warning messages that imply off-market apps are suspicious. Going off-market may work for hobbyists and crooks but it’s not a realistic option for a commercial developer.
We hope that Google will realize this and let you the users decide which products have struck the right balance between privacy and utility. Alternatively, Google could stop calling Android an open platform and pre-approve all new apps.
Once again, we’re sorry for the inconvenience and we’ll keep working to bring back crowd-sourced Caller ID.
– Jason Devitt, CEO
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