Google has apologised to the Kenyan business directory site Mocality for trying to drum up business in the country by scraping Mocality's client database and falsely claiming that Mocality works in conjunction with Google.
Mocality chief Stefan Magdalinski revealed Google's behaviour in a blog post on Friday, which laid out how a team working for Google had made 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." The American firm apologised within a day.
"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," Google's engineering chief for the EMEA region, Nelson Mattos, wrote in a Google+ post.
"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," Mattos continued.
Magdalinski's post on Friday explained how Mocality had discovered its crowdsourced database of Kenyan businesses was being scraped.
The harvesting of data began shortly after Google set up its own Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO) service in September. "Shortly after that launch, we started receiving 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," Magdalinski wrote.
When these calls continued, Mocality examined its server logs and discovered that a team of people was systematically accessing its business database in a non-automated way.
Mocality set up a sting so that people accessing the database from the suspect IP address would get slightly different information from that served to normal customers. The alteration included the replacement of the client business's telephone number with that of Mocality's own call centre, which can record calls.
The recorded calls revealed that people identifying themselves as Google employees were contacting Mocality's clients, telling them that Mocality works with Google, and trying to sell them websites and domain names.
In late December, it also emerged that the GKBO operations had been outsourced to India, suggesting this was not the work of a small rogue team.
"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," Magdalinskin wrote on Friday. "They have been telling untruths about their relationship with us, and about our business practices, in order to do so. As of 11 January, nearly 30 percent of our database has apparently been contacted."
Following the apologies from Mattos and Google sub-Saharan Africa lead Joe Mucheru, Magdalinski said he appreciated the "speed and honesty" of Google's reaction, but he still had outstanding questions.
These included why Google did not just ask to collaborate with Mocality, who in Google knew about the tactics, and who actually authorised them — "Until we uncovered the 'India by way of Mountain View' angle, I could have believed that this was a local team that somehow forgot the corporate motto, but not now," he said.
"The real test is what action Google takes to remedy the damage done, the openness with which they explain how this went so wrong, and what steps they take to ensure this never happens again, in any country, to any startup," Magdalinski added.