The Google-Kenya ripoff

Mocality is an African startup that has a Kenya-wide business directory. There is no Kenyan yellow pages, so the directory was crowdsourced, paying thousands of Kenyans to help create and validate its database.

When the businesses in Mocality's database started asking them about the premium service they were offering with Google, Mocality was puzzled. They had no joint venture with Google, and they had never charged any business for inclusion in their database. When they examined their server logs, they saw a large number of hits to the records for the businesses that had been cold-called from the same IP range.

So Mocality laid a trap: when that IP range next visited the Mocality site, they fed it fake phone numbers that went to Mocality's own call center, where a Mocality operator pretended to be a business-owner and recorded the conversation. In that conversation, the caller identified himself as a Google employee, calling about a joint Google-Mocality venture, and asking the business to pay Google for a Kenya Business Online website with its own domain on that basis. This was, of course, absolutely fraudulent. There was and is no Google-Mocality joint venture.

Shortly after, that IP range stopped visiting Mocality's servers, but another range, this one registered to Google's Mountain View headquarters [edit: this address has previously been used to conduct official Google business in India], began to query its database. Again, Mocality served a fake result with its own call-center number, and an hour later, they received a call from someone identifying herself as working on Google's behalf, asking for money for a joint Google-Mocality product.

The conclusion is hard to escape: Google -- or people working on its behalf, with its knowledge and cooperation -- took the numbers of tens of thousands of Kenyan businesses from Mocality's database, then fraudulently solicited money from them by claiming to be in a joint venture with Mocality. This seems to me to be outright criminal activity, and Google has a lot of explaining to do.

Update: I have contacted Google Africa's press address and asked for an on-the-record response from a named spokesperson.

Update 2: Julie Taylor from Google has replied saying that Google will have a statement soon.

Update 3: Nelson Mattos, Google's Vice-President for Product and Engineering, Europe and Emerging Markets, writes:

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. 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.

Here's Mocality CEO Stef Magdalinski on the subject:

Since October, Google’s GKBO appears to have been systematically accessing Mocality’s database and attempting to sell their competing product to our business owners. They have been telling untruths about their relationship with us, and about our business practices, in order to do so. As of January 11th, nearly 30% of our database has apparently been contacted.

Furthermore, they now seem to have outsourced this operation from Kenya to India.

When we started this investigation, I thought that we’d catch a rogue call-centre employee, point out to Google that they were violating our Terms and conditions (sections 9.12 and 9.17, amongst others), someone would get a slap on the wrist, and life would continue.

I did not expect to find a human-powered, systematic, months-long, fraudulent (falsely claiming to be collaborating with us, and worse) attempt to undermine our business, being perpetrated from call centres on 2 continents.

Google, what were you thinking? (Thanks, Stef!)