[Updated] Facing Another PR Disaster: Google Accused Of Fraudulently Undermining A Kenyan Startup

Google, what were you thinking?, asks Kenyan startup Mocality, which operates the country’s largest online business directory. Mocality is accusing Google of knowingly engaging in fraudulent behavior to undermine their business and grow theirs, after careful monitoring of Internet traffic and a successful sting operation turned up some very interesting results.

You should read Mocality’s blog post about the situation in full, but here’s the gist. Basically, Mocality built up a sizeable directory of roughly 100,000 Kenyan businesses over the years, by crowdsourcing information and helping organizations advertise themselves on the Web.

Not long after Google helped kickstart a program to get Kenyan businesses online, the startup suddenly started fielding calls from Kenyan business owners with questions about a supposed partnership / joint-venture Mocality had set up with the Internet search and advertising giant.

The number of calls steadily rose, Mocality got suspicious, and the company decided to set up a traffic monitoring system, combined with a smart sting operation, to see where they were coming from. Turns out it was apparently Google doing the exact opposite of “no evil”.

At the start of December we analysed our server logs to look for a common pattern for the businesses that had contacted us with these confused calls. We found a single IP/ User-Agent combination that had accessed all these businesses.

So a person or (judging by the access rate) team of people were systematically accessing our database, during office hours, and it looked like they moved into a new office over the weekend at the start of November. But who were they, and what were they doing?

We decided to find out. We made some changes to the site:

– For visitors from the address, we changed the code to serve slightly different content 10% of the time.

– Instead of the real business phone number, we served a number that fed through to our call centre team, where the incoming calls would also be recorded. Our team were briefed to act like the business owners for the calls.

We switched the new code on December 21st. When we listened to the calls, we were beyond astonished.

Google Kenya employees were apparently calling up businesses they found on Mocality, trying to get them to sign up for a competing product by lying about a partnership with Mocality that was supposedly in place, and spreading misinformation about Mocality’s business model.

Serious stuff.

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.

It gets worse: Here’s a complete transcript ( with translation of the kiSwahili portions) of a another call, in which the caller goes further, claiming that Mocality engages in bait-and-switch practices to try and charge businesses upto Ksh. 20,000 ($200) for their listings. Mocality has never and will never charge for listings.

Links to the redacted calls and transcripts can be found in Mocality’s blog post.

According to the startup, about 30 percent of businesses in its database had been contacted by Google Kenya employees (and even by Indian call centre employees working for Google).

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.

And once again, Google has quite some explaining to do. We’ve contacted the company and are anxiously awaiting their response to Mocality’s grave accusations.

Update: Google says it is currently investigating the allegations and will respond ASAP.

Update 2: Google has given us the following statement, in which it confirms that the Kenya group was acting independently of the mother ship — what you’d expect:

“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.”