Google has announced a bizarre policy that effectively bans call-recording apps from the Play Store. As part of Google’s crackdown on apps that use Android’s accessibility APIs for non-accessibility reasons, Google says call recording is no longer allowed via the accessibility APIs. Since the accessibility APIs are the only way for third-party apps to record calls on Android, call-recording apps are dead on Google Play.
NLL Apps—the developer of a call-recording phone app with a million downloads on the Play Store—has been tracking the policy change. The Google Play support page lays down the new law, saying: “The Accessibility API is not designed and cannot be requested for remote call audio recording.” Google’s ban kicks in on May 11, the first day of Google I/O, oddly.
There’s no clear reason why Google is banning call recording from the Play Store. Many jurisdictions require the consent of one or more members of a call in order to start recording, but once you meet that requirement, recording is entirely legal and useful. The Google Recorder app is a product built entirely around the usefulness of recording conversations. Google doesn’t seem to have a problem with call recording when it comes to its own apps, either—the Google Phone app on Pixel phones supports call recording in some countries. Google just doesn’t provide the proper APIs to let third-party app developers compete with it in this market, and now it’s shutting down their attempted workarounds.
The Android accessibility APIs are extremely powerful and enable all sorts of control over the Android OS. Google has said in the past it would prefer if the accessibility APIs were only used by apps meant for people with disabilities, but because no non-accessibility options exist for many of the supported functions, many power-user apps plug into the accessibility APIs anyway. Google has said it wants to crack down on non-accessibility accessibility apps but also that it wanted to consider “responsible and innovative uses of accessibility services.”
In the past, Google has weened apps off the accessibility APIs by supporting a specific use case with a more scoped set of official APIs, and it looks like that was the plan at one point for call recording, but Google eventually abandoned those plans. In 2020, the second Android 11 Developer Preview briefly added an “ACCESS_CALL_AUDIO” API for recording, but this API never made it into a final release of Android. It seems like going through with this would have been a reasonable strategy: first support call recording with a proper API, then a few years later block apps from using the Accessibility API for call recording. Instead, the way Google went about it effectively bans all call-recording apps from the Play Store. The good news is, you can always sideload!