Google was already having one of its toughest weeks in the company's recent history, but it looks like things just got worse: Mocality, a Kenyan startup that offers business listings on its site, now accuses the search giant of scraping its data and using it to cold-call the businesses in its directory to offer them free websites and paid domain names through the Google-backed Getting Kenyan Businesses Online initiative. In the process of poaching Mocality's customers, these Google employees allegedly also told these business owners numerous lies about Mocality. Mocality, after hearing about this, set up a sting operation and caught a number of callers who indeed said they worked for Google (here is an example).
Update: Google has posted a reaction to this on Google+ now. Google's Nelson Mattos: "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."
Mocality's evidence for all of this? Besides the calls, the company caught two waves of scraping activity on its site – one with IP addresses based in Kenya and one with IP addresses linked to Google (http://220.127.116.11/). It then served a special phone number to visitors from these suspect IP addresses and it never took more than a few hours before the company would intercept calls from Indian call-center employees who identified themselves as calling on behalf of Google.
You can find all the details in Mocality's blog post about their allegations.
Something Ain't Right
Does any of this really make sense, though? Google is investigating the allegations and promises to have a statement soon, but something just doesn't feel right here. The only evidence that really ties any of this back to Google is the IP address that is linked to Google in Mountain View.
IP addresses can be spoofed and over on Hacker News, some folks are arguing that the Google IP address could either stem from the scammers using Google Translate or Google's App Engine or the Google OpenSocial proxy.
Google, given its brand recognition, is probably invoked by more online scammers than anybody else.
On the other hand, though, that all seems like a lot of work for what seems to be – assuming that Google wasn't involved – a pretty standard scam operation. I doubt most scammers would go through the trouble involved here. Also, the fact that a call center in India was involved here either means this was a very elaborate scam, or more evidence for Google's involvement in this.
Just a Scam Without Google's (Direct) Involvement?
Google, however, generally isn't in the business of selling business listings and domain names – though its affiliates sometimes are. This also seems like a rather labor-intensive operation for very little profit (at least on the scale Google operates on).
What could Google's role in all of this be then? My best guess: somebody went rogue at Getting Kenyan Businesses Online or maybe in a Google-affiliated call center. Google's partners aren't "Google" and while the company will have to take responsibility for this, chances are that whereever this scam originated from was not under direct control of the company.
The whole thing has been blown out of proportion, although this is understandable considering this is Google we are talking about. The database they are accused of scraping was (and still is) publicly available in the Mocality website. It is one of the most comprehensive business directories in Kenya, and any business organization would make use of it. Nothing illegal here.
The only illegality (if at all) is the false claim by the Google employees about having a deal with Mocality. I wouldn't consider it a fraud or a scam, the amounts involved are negligible (about 2.5 USD per month). It was a dumb mistake on Google's part though, and I have written as much in a blog post: http://www.tielict.com/blog/410/google-kenya-vs-mocality-controversy-scandal-or-tantrums/