While India struggles to contain the Coronavirus pandemic, the cricket-crazy nation on Saturday kicked off the Indian Premier League (IPL), arguably one of the biggest sporting tournaments in the world, barring the usual fanfare. Over the weekend, close matches on the field in the U.A.E. weren’t the only thing adding to the excitement. Off the field, there was another fight brewing, featuring Paytm which is one of the sponsors of the cricket tournament. On Friday, a day before the IPL started, Internet giant Google pulled down the Paytm app and Paytm First Games app from its Play Store.
Reason: Google said that the Paytm apps violated its Play Store’s policies on gambling. Paytm, whose parent One97 Communications is valued at $16 billion, claims to have more than 50 million monthly active users.
“We don’t allow online casinos or support any unregulated gambling apps that facilitate sports betting. This includes if an app leads consumers to an external website that allows them to participate in paid tournaments to win real money or cash prizes, it is a violation of our policies,” Suzanne Frey, vice president, Product, Android Security and Privacy, posted in a blog on Friday.
Paytm, in a blog, said that it had received the communication from Google in the afternoon. “While it is clear that all activities on Paytm are completely lawful, we have temporarily removed the cash back component in an effort to meet the Play Store policy requirements,” Paytm posted.
Sonam Chandwani, managing partner at KS Legal & Associates, points out that enforcement of compliance with Google’s policies one day before the Indian Premier League is scheduled to start is “a preemptive attempt by Google to reinstate and remind developers of its stringent gambling policies”. In India, the legislation puts a blanket ban on sports betting, but fantasy sports is not illegal in most Indian states.
However, a few hours later on Friday, the Paytm app was back on the Play Store, but the Paytm First Games app still isn’t.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS), a self-regulatory fantasy sports body, urged Google India via a tweet to “allow fantasy sports apps on the Play Store, as fantasy sports has been recognised by the Supreme Court of India as ‘Game of Skill’.” “As Paytm’s Play Store App was able to promote Paytm First Games, and other Times Internet Apps were allowed to promote MPL, FIFS had only sought clarity from Google to ensure a level playing field by allowing all Fantasy Sports Apps to be promoted by their Play Store Apps. FIFS would like to place on record that we never asked or wished for any company, such as MPL or Paytm, to have any negative repercussions whatsoever,” FIFS said in an email response to Fortune India. IPL title sponsor Dream11 is a founding member of FIFS.
According to FIFS, in the past, FanCode and SportsTiger, sister brands of Dream11 and MyTeam11 respectively, were removed from the Google Play Store for violation of Google Play Store’s policy as they were promoting their fantasy sports apps.
In a blog on Sunday, Paytm shared their side of the story, accusing Google of “arm-twisting” and not giving it a chance to explain its cashback sticker feature. It said that the feature didn’t violate any laws, and that a similar cashback was offered by Google Pay. Paytm also said that since Google owns Android, which powers over 95% smartphones in India, it “has enormous control over which apps you download through its Play Store policies”.
Industry watchers say the argument is not without merit, when behemoths such as Google and Apple have immense influence over developers. “This is part of a broader tussle between app store players such as Apple and Google versus payments, content/music and gaming developers, similar to the U.S. legal tussle between Epic Games and the Apple App Store, and Spotify’s anti-trust petition in Europe versus Apple,” said Barnik Chitran Maitra, managing partner and CEO of Arthur D. Little, India and South Asia. “Strategically, it will also not be totally unexpected if Google decides to compete in the fantasy sports space in India with its own apps/services under Google Stadia. ”
However, a Google spokesperson on Monday morning said: “Offering cashbacks and vouchers alone do not constitute a violation of our Google Play gambling policies. Last week we reiterated our Play Store gambling policies. Our policies don’t allow online casinos or support any unregulated gambling apps that facilitate sports betting, including daily fantasy sports in India.”
According to Chandwani, Google’s policies will have an overarching implication on apps in its Play Store. “An undetermined implication would be the compliance of its policies by sports fantasy Apps like Dream11 and MPL that are not directly available on the Google Play Store platform but feature in advertisements and induce a similar effect on users, eventually leading to a violation of its gambling policies. Therefore, Google may be required to fine-tune its policies so as to address the implications of apps directly placed on its platform and the content available therein,” Chandwani added.
The IPL tournament would be a two-month affair. But whether the debate will end in that period is anybody’s guess.