Tim Bradshaw Google admits bad behaviour in Kenya

Google has admitted that employees in its Kenyan office have pillaged a local rival’s database to try to sell their competing products to its customers.

In an embarrassing lesson for any company that is growing fast internationally, Google – motto: Don’t be evil – was caught out by its victim, Mocality, in a sting operation.

Mocality, a Kenyan business directory designed for the mobile phone, is headed by Stefan Magdalinski, a veteran of London internet ventures including Moo.com and MySociety.

In a blogpost on Friday, Mr Magdalinski laid out in technical detail what he described as “scalping” by Google’s “Getting Kenyan Businesses Online” programme.

“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.”

Although the wrongdoing stopped short of hacking, Mocality was able to trace calls on its database server to a human team of Googlers who were accessing, at peak, hundreds of its business profile pages every day.

To prove his concerns, Mr Magdalinski changed his website’s coding to serve up listings with Mocality’s own phone number, just to visitors from the suspects’ computers. Recordings of the incoming calls showed Google employees were claiming that they worked with Mocality or misled their would-be customers about its pricing, to GKBO’s gain:

“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.

“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.”

Mr Magdalinski is particularly aggrieved because Mocality provides local Kenyan content against which Google can sell ads and itself is one of the search engine’s biggest advertisers in the region. “As a admirer of Google’s usually bold ethical stance around the world, to find those principles are not applied in Kenya is simply… saddening,” he said.

Nelson Mattos, Google’s vice-president for product and engineering, Europe and emerging markets, said in a statement:

“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.”