Google accused of 'scalping' Kenyan businesses


Google is looking into accusations it scraped data from a Kenyan business listings company and lying about its relationship with that firm.

In a blog post entitled 'Google, what were you thinking?', Mocality claimed it had spotted some strange goings on late last year, following Google's launch of Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO).

Mocality began receiving calls from businesses listed on its site, asking it with help on their websites a service Mocality does not provide.

After doing some simple investigative work of traffic on its site, the company discovered a single user or set of users had visited Mocality listings of those businesses who had called asking for website assistance.

They have been telling untruths about their relationship with us, and about our business practices.

It appeared a team of people were accessing its database, so it decided to find out what they were doing. For visitors from the IP address relating to the offending party, Mocality changed the code to serve slightly different content 10 per cent of the time.

The key change was the telephone number of the business listed, which was rerouted through to Mocality's own call centre team. It could now find out who was calling. It turned out the callers claimed to be from Google Kenya, according to the blog.

The callers claimed GKBO was working in collaboration with Mocality before offering them a website as well as upselling them a domain name, the blog claimed.

"On all calls, the same script is followed a Google Kenya employee calls a Mocality business and tries to deceive them into signing up for their competing product, by claiming that we are working together," the blog by Mocality CEO Stefan Magdalinski read.

Another caller suggested Mocality charges for its listings, according to Magdalinski.

"Mocality has never and will never charge for listings. The irony: on the same call, the caller tries exactly that tactic for GKBO's hosting fees," he added.

A later analysis found an IP address coming directly from Google had accessed business listings. Mocality did the same trick and got the people using the IP address to phone its call centres, which indicated the GKBO operation had been outsourced to India, Mocality claimed.

"Google's GKBO appears to have been systematically accessing Mocality's database and attempting to sell their competing product to our business owners," Magdalinski added.

"They have been telling untruths about their relationship with us, and about our business practices, in order to do so. As of 11 January, nearly 30 per cent of our database has apparently been contacted.

"By apparently systematically trawling our database, and then outsourcing that trawl to another continent, Google isn't just scalping us, they're also scalping every Kenyan who has participated in our programme."

Google said it was aware of the allegations and was looking into them.

"We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality's data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites," said Nelson Mattos, vice-president for product and engineering in Europe and emerging markets at Google.

"We've already unreservedly apologised to Mocality. We're still investigating exactly how this happened, and as soon as we have all the facts, we'll be taking the appropriate action with the people involved."

Tom Brewster

Tom Brewster is currently an associate editor at Forbes and an award-winning journalist who covers cyber security, surveillance, and privacy. Starting his career at ITPro as a staff writer and working up to a senior staff writer role, Tom has been covering the tech industry for more than ten years and is considered one of the leading journalists in his specialism.

He is a proud alum of the University of Sheffield where he secured an undergraduate degree in English Literature before undertaking a certification from General Assembly in web development.