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Google Accused Of Scraping Kenyan Startup’s Database

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Mocality says it used a sting to catch Google spreading lies and undermining its business

Kenyan startup Mocality has accused Google of scraping contqacts from its database of local businesses and spreading lies about its service.

Stefan Magdalinski, CEO of Mocality, said that it was “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 two continents.”

Getting Kenya Online

Mocality is a crowdsourced platform that lists over 170,000 small Kenyan businesses and over the last two years has paid $100,000 (£65,000) to Kenyans who have contributed to its database.

For many of these businesses, it was the first time they had ever been online and in September, Google decided to launch its Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO) programme.

However shortly after its launch, Mocality began to receive what it said were “odd calls” from businesses asking about websites, but Mocality doesn’t offer such a service. The company discovered an unusually high amount of traffic from one source that was targeting its listings and it appeared to be coming from a “team of humans” rather than an automated system.

Mocality then decided to lay a trap by changing its code to catch people from that source of traffic. It placed some of its own phone numbers in the database, and briefed call centre staff to act like they were working at small businesses when they received phone calls.

Caught in the act

These phone calls turned out to be from Google, who falsely claimed to be working with Mocality and offered to provide the business with a website for a fee. It also incorrectly told them that Mocality charged for its services.

The company chose to do nothing immediately but after Christmas, it found that Google had seemingly outsourced the cold calls to India.

“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,” said Magdalinski in a blog post. “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.”

Google ‘investigating’

“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, someone would get a slap on the wrist, and life would continue,” he added.

“We’re aware that a company in Kenya has accused us of using some of their publicly available customer data without permission,” responded Google in a statement. “We are investigating the matter and will have more information as soon as possible.”

This is not the first time that Google has been embroiled in controversy. In May 2010 it confessed that its Street View cars had inadvertedly collected personal information from private networks while out taking pictures and only yesterday it was forced to admit that it profited from adverts from illegal enterprises such as those which advertised fake IDs, cannabis and non-existent Olympic tickets.