Disconnect hits the desktop with new version that will protect it from Google’s whims

Disconnect, an outfit providing anti-tracking protection and ad blocking, has had a tough time with Google. Earlier this year, Google kicked Disconnect’s app out of the Android Play Store not once but twice — and now Disconnect is understandably worried about the long-term fate of its widely-used Chrome browser plugin.

To that end and others, [company]Disconnect[/company] has now released a new generation of its software that spans not only iOS and Android devices – the latter via side-loading, as the Play Store ban remains in force — but now also desktop Windows and Mac computers (a Linux version is also in the works.) Along with this release, Disconnect has also revealed a distribution partnership with German communications giant [company]Deutsche Telekom[/company], which will offer it as protection to customers in a special promotion.

The software shows users the “invisible tracking and unsecured connections” used by websites and apps, routes traffic through Disconnect’s encrypted tunnel, blocks ad trackers, hides the user’s location, displays “privacy icons” that describe sites’ policies, and provides anonymous search. The connection-tracking comes for free but “premium protection” costs $5 a month or $50 a year, covering up to three devices.

Embracing the desktop

As CEO Casey Oppenheim explained to me, the release of the desktop applications means Disconnect’s technologies are no longer specific to certain browsers – a handy step, as the firm doesn’t have an extension at all for [company]Microsoft[/company]’s widely-used Internet Explorer. The addition of Disconnect’s VPN to the desktop also means it can get at desktop applications that serve ads.

“We’ve never had a desktop application before,” Oppenheim said. “We can still do a lot of cool things on the browser, but the way tracking is headed is more towards supercookies, where it happens across all your devices. We couldn’t crack the nut of an IE extension, so we haven’t been able to provide a solution for IE users, which is a huge chunk of the internet population still. By moving to the desktop we’ve been able to. It’s a nice solution for all internet users.”

The “smart VPN” technology in Disconnect’s applications has seen the light of day before, bundled with the privacy-focused Blackphone that started shipping in June this year. Oppenheim claims it will stop so-called supercookies — the chunks of code that carriers increasingly add to HTTP requests to make it easier for advertisers to track them. “By encrypting the connections, we basically are making your internet traffic invisible to the ISPs and telcos – they can’t inspect it and add a UIDH header to it,” he said.

Some carriers such as [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]Vodafone[/company] may be going the supercookie route, but Deutsche Telekom (DT) has been making a big deal out of its privacy-friendliness. Oppenheim praised DT CEO Tim Höttges’s idea that telcos should be “digital stewards”, and said this might have something to do with the fact that telcos make a lot more money per user per year than Google does:

What’s happening right now, especially vis-à-vis people like Google, and cybercrime that’s happening, represents a real threat to people using their devices. The erosion of trust is a real problem for the telco industry… The relationship that they have to their users is just different and I think protecting them from all sorts of different threats makes a lot of sense for the telcos.

According to Oppenheim, the partnership with the German carrier covers both desktop and mobile. How DT will roll it out to its Android customers, given the Play Store ban, is a “bit of an open question,” he added.

Google relations

On that subject, Oppenheim said Disconnect was “not giving up on Android, but the fact is Google took a very hard stance with us.” In September, when it gave the app the boot for the second time, Google claimed that services blocking third-party ads mess with the “great experience” it’s trying to provide.

Per Oppenheim:

We tried to get them to compromise and accept that a lot of third-party ad services are serving malware and are dangerous for users… and they took a hard line and said no and they’re not going to discuss it anymore. They literally said there will be no further communication on this.

The Disconnect CEO said his firm wouldn’t try resubmitting the app now because, if it were to be pulled again, it would count as another strike against Disconnect’s developer account “and we’re not interested in getting our developer account pulled.” That’s really bad news for the “tens of thousands” who previously downloaded Disconnect through the Play Store, because it means they now can’t get updates – meaning their version of Disconnect may over time become seriously insecure.

“Like a lot of companies now, we are overly reliant on Google and exist at their leisure,” Oppenheim said. “Not only does Play represent a huge opportunity to distribute our software on Android, but we are in the Chrome Store and that has rules very similar to the Play Store. Google is ratcheting up its rhetoric about what it’s going to allow and not allow in the Chrome Store… The same rules would apply to Chrome where, if they decided to get rid of our extensions, we’d be cut off from 1.5 million extension users.”

The release of the new Disconnect desktop app should mitigate that risk. It can be downloaded now from the company’s website, as can the Android version — the iOS versions are formally available through the App Store.