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Google's Chrome Web Store under fire for shoddy service and cryptic policies

Developers! Developers! Developers! Oh, wait, that's a different company

Google is still working on a much-needed and overdue revision to its Chrome Extensions platform known as Manifest v3, but extension developers complain that the ad-slinger doesn't do enough to support them.

About three weeks ago, a developer build of uBlock Origin, a popular content blocking extension, was rejected from the Chrome Web Store (CWS) because it didn't comply with a Google policy that says extensions must have a single purpose.

The developer, Raymond Hill, decided not to try to fix the issue, and in response to speculation that Google's review process had erred, said, "No point speculating one way or another, my experience with the CWS in the past is that we will never know why it was labelled 'REJECTED,' they never disclose the exact 'why.'"

A few days ago, Simeon Vincent, developer advocate for Chrome Extensions, joined the discussion of the issue on GitHub to explain that rejection emails describe only the policy violated rather than the specific, observed violation.

"As I understand it, this format was adopted in order to avoid providing malicious actors with information that would help them game the review process," Vincent wrote. "But this also has the effect of not providing developers with enough guidance to address the violation or to clarify a misunderstanding with the reviewer."

Those familiar with Franz Kafka's The Trial may see some parallels.

Vincent acknowledged that Google is "working to strike a better balance in our communications and improve the developer experience," and mentions poor developer communications in another thread. But frustrations extend beyond communication.

On Thursday, George Mike, developer of the Table Capture extension, compiled a list of grievances in a shared Google Doc file to encourage Google to address long-standing concerns about the CWS, like lack of notifications.

"[The Chrome Web Store] feels neglected," he said in an email to The Register. "That's what motivated me. I am still using a version of the CWS that was probably deprecated two or three years ago, while the new version is incomplete and also apparently destaffed. There's a doc with known issues that hasn't been updated in almost 20 months."

He added, "Honestly, this wouldn't be happening however if the CWS + Google Pay integration didn't mysteriously break on us in early September. That was the impetus for a lot of frustration to pour out."

The frustration goes back years. In 2013, a developer filed a bug report asking Google to implement a notification system for when an extension user posts feedback on the Chrome Web Store.

"Without email notifications, both extension developers and users are forced to manually keep checking the support page for updates," the individual making the report wrote. "I've noticed quite often when I answer a user's question, they never even see the response because they don't bother to check the support page ever again."

In a post to the Chrome Extension discussion group, Mike said, "The bug was created in 2013. That's the definition of the DGAF [don't give a f…] vibe anyone [who has] relied on the [Chrome Web Store] has felt for the past 5 years."

Another developer also asked for this feature on Stack Overflow. But the request remains unaddressed.

Other complaints cited include the CWS' inability to manage subscriptions, lack a means to update extensions waiting for a policy compliance review with a new version, and "reporting of malicious extensions seems to be ineffective and/or insufficiently supervised."

In response to the posting of the grievance list, another extension developer, Zachary Yaro, acknowledged the ongoing problems but also voiced support for efforts the apparently downsized Google extensions team has made.

"[W]hile I think there is value to the community aggregating the grievances mentioned across the mailing lists, and I do agree the CWS has room to improve, I also want to express appreciation for things like the revamped dev console and features included and hinted at in it—especially since certain crbug comments over the past few years have suggested the CWS team was notably downsized, and it is not exactly the fault of the people on that team that Google higher-ups are not making it a high priority," wrote Yaro.

Chrome extensions at least have limited alternative distribution options outside the CWS. But for those trying to build businesses on CWS-hosted Chrome extensions, it's less than ideal to have nowhere to turn for dispute resolution and to have complaints languish.

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One of the reasons the CWS gets ignored by Google may have to do with its lack of revenue generation. People do make money off Chrome extensions but Mike advises against using Google's built-in payment system, Chrome Web Store Payments. "You probably shouldn't be using the CWS to manage any of that," he explained. "Anyone who's serious about it will roll their own using Stripe/PayPal."

Google perhaps deserves some sympathy because the Chrome extension platform has ongoing security concerns and some of those raising their voices may be scammers upset that their abusive extensions have been flagged.

Mike acknowledges as much. "Extensions have immense access to the content in your browser," he said. "It's a very hard problem to make the extension platform available broadly and powerful enough for developers to create meaningful improvements for their users while also policing them, ensuring they're not malicious."

The Register asked Google to comment and though a spokesperson acknowledged the questions, no one responded.

Asked what he'd like to see happen, Mike said, "They just need to care about the platform, but I feel they have little motivation here. Chrome won. And at this point, extensions just represent reputational risk to them." ®

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