Google has a new, embarrassing scandal on its hands this morning.
Kenyan startup Mocality conducted a relatively elaborate sting to catch Google scraping results from its database of local businesses. Mocality CEO Stefan Magdalinski wrote up the full results on its blog.
Mocality is a crowdsourced platform that lists over 170,000 small Kenyan businesses. Over the last two years it paid out over $100,000 to Kenyans who contributed listings to its database. For 100,000 of those 170,000 businesses, Mocality is the first time they’ve been listed online.
In September Google decided to replicate some of what Mocality had already done. It launched a program called, Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO). After Google launched GKBO, Mocality started getting what it calls “odd calls.”
Small businesses were calling Mocality about websites, but Mocality doesn’t offer websites. Google does.
Mocality then traced sources of inbound traffic, and it found that an unusually high amount of traffic from one source was targeting the contact information of the businesses it listed. The traffic wasn’t from an automated system, it was from a “team of humans.”
So, Mocality changed its code to catch the people coming from that source of traffic. Instead of listing the businesses phone numbers, it listed its own number and told employees to act like they were working at the small business.
Sure enough, it got phone calls to its offices. The people calling were from Google. These Google employees said they were working with Mocality, which isn’t true, and then offered to get the business a website (at a fee.)
What’s worse is that on one call a Google employee says Mocality charges businesses, which is not true.
Mocality sat on the evidence for a little while during the Christmas break. When it can back from holiday it found more shady business. This time Google was having people in India do the cold calls.
Magdalinski says that 30% of Mocality’s database has been contacted by Google. He’s rightfully annoyed by Google’s behavior. He wants to know why Google didn’t just ask if it wanted to get some of the data. He also wants to know why it’s lying to Kenyan businesses about its relationship with Mocality.
A Google rep provided this statement to us: “We’re aware that a company in Kenya has accused us of using some of their publicly available customer data without permission. We are investigating the matter and will have more information as soon as possible.”