Google accused of raiding start-up's database

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A Kenyan start-up has accused Google of scraping its database as part of an effort to undermine its business.

Mocality says it had built up the country's largest online business directory, with over 170,000 entries, by crowdsourcing - paying individuals for contributing entries.

"Over two years, we’ve paid out Ksh. 11m (over $100,000) to thousands of individuals, and we have built Kenya’s most comprehensive directory," says Stefan Magdalinski on the company blog.

However, he says, when Google launched a program to help Kenyan businesses get online, Mocality started getting some odd calls.

"One or two business owners were clearly getting confused because they wanted help with their website, and we don’t currently offer websites, only a listing. Initially, we didn’t think much of it, but the confusing calls continued through November," says Magdalinski.

After analyzing server logs, the company found that a single IP/User-Agent combination - registered to Google - had accessed all the businesses concerned. And by setting up a sting operation, it was able to listen in to calls made to the businesses on its database.

"When we listened to the calls, we were beyond astonished," says Magdalinski.

Google staff were apparently calling up businesses on the database and trying to persuade them to sign up for Google's own directory instead. In some cases, they claimed to be in partnership with Mocality; in others they cast aspersions on Mocality's business practices.

Astonishingly, claims Mocality, this wasn't a case of one rogue call center employee. Indeed, two call centers were involved, one of which was in India.

"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 two continents," says Magdalinski.

Google's given us a terse response.

"We're aware that a company in Kenya has accused us of using some of their publicly available customer data without permission," says a spokesperson.

"These are clearly very serious allegations, and we are doing everything possible to investigate them."