Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Phone-Tracking App Says Google Played Favorites

(CN) - Google shut down a popular app that lets parents track their children's cellphone usage after copycats flooded the market, a developer says in Federal Court.

Spy Phone Labs filed the federal complaint Wednesday in Newark, N.J., against Google and several developers whose names it has not yet learned,

The Wayne, N.J.-based developer's app, which went live on Google Play in August 2012, allows parents to track their kids' cellphone usage and location and monitor phone calls and text messages.

With 1.1 million downloads in the first year, Spy Phone became a top result on Google Play's search lists, according to the complaint.

Other developers allegedly seized on the popularity of Spy Phone, however, and began to develop their own versions, often incorporating all or part of the Spy Phone name in their own products.

Spy Phone Labs says it filed several trademark-infringement complaints with the Google Play team, and that Google initially removed the offending apps from its store.

The copycats nevertheless reappeared soon after with "no apparent penalties or repercussions to the infringing developer" by Google, according to the complaint.

Spy Phone Labs says Google never "terminated or suspended" any of the accounts tied to developers "whose apps had names that infringed on plaintiff's registered Spy Phone trademark.

Since a complainant's email address is relayed to allegedly infringing developers as part of the Google grievance process, Spy Phone Labs says the developers began filing their own complaints that accused it of violating Google's developer policies.

One developer even went as far as filing "false and fraudulent consumer reviews on Google Play that were intended to discourage consumer downloads of plaintiff's app," the 24-page complaint states.

Google allegedly responded to those reviews by shutting down the Spy Phone app and terminating Spy Phone Labs' developer account in June 2013.

Though Google pointed to its spyware policy in support of that move, Spy Phone Labs says its app violated no such policy.

Google knew this "and that any complaints the Google Play team received about plaintiff's app were false or fraudulent," according to the complaint.

Despite evidence that installing Spy Phone causes a notification on the phone that informs the user about its use, it took Spy Phone Labs until last year to reinstate the developer's account and return the app to Google Play, the developer says.

Google allegedly conditioned such relief, however, on requiring Spy Phone Labs to stop using the Spy Phone brand name.

The fact that Spy Phone Labs owned a trademark for the Spy Phone name, and that dozens of other apps, including those with competing products, had the word "spy" in their names, the Google Play team would not budge on this issue, according to the complaint.

When Spy Phone Labs relented to have its developer account reinstated, downloads of the rechristened "Phone Tracker" app plummeted to 260,000 over a 10-month period - a quarter of the downloads that had occurred in the 10 months before the fiasco, the developer claims.

Meanwhile the infringing developers have continued to market their own tracker apps with the word "spy" in their titles, and Google has done nothing to stop them, the lawsuit continues.

Spy Phone Labs allegedly began complaining to the Google Play team about apps that used the word "spy" in their names, but Google refused to act.

In instances where Google did remove an offending app, the programs typically reappeared a short time later with no apparent repercussions to the developers, according to the complaint.

Google eventually tried to block Spy Phone Labs' complaints by suspending its account again in July 2014, this time for violating the spam policy, the developer says.

After Spy Phone Labs lost its appeal it allegedly received an anonymous letter from a Google Play employee, stating that all of Google's actions against it were unjustified and retaliatory.

"The author further stated many Google employees either develop their own apps or have side deals with developers who have apps that compete with plaintiff's app, and that these employees had orchestrated the removals of plaintiff's app from Google Play because it was successful and cut into the profits of the other developers," the complaint says.

Spy Phone Labs says Google never responded to its demands for an inquiry. The infringing apps are still available on Google Play, and are even touted on the Google Android's search engines as top-ranked downloads - a system that Google controls, according to the complaint.

The company seeks an injunction against the use of its trademark, as well as an order that Google allow it to use the Spy Phone name on Google Play. Spy Phone Labs also seeks statutory damages up to $2 million for willful infringement.

It is represented by Michael Freeman with Greenberg Freeman in Manhattan.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.