Evil: that’s the only word you can use to describe Google’s recent misadventure in which it was found to be systematically accessing Mocality’s database – a Kenyan business directory – to sell business owners website packages under a false Google-Mocality joint venture, when none such venture existed. It is scummy, sinister, shameful, and can (will, should) turn into a major embarrassment for the company.
Context: Yesterday, Mocality’s CEO, Stefan Magdalinski, posted a revealing blog posted titled, “Google, What Were You Thinking”. The blog post accused Google of accessing Mocality’s painstakingly built database to extract contact information about businesses. This information was then used to sell businesses website packages as part of Google ‘Getting Kenyan Businesses Online’ initiative under a false Google-Mocality masthead. To substantiate these claims, Stefan produced IP-address records and most damningly, evidence from a sting operation which fed incorrect contact information that redirected to Mocality’s own call centers. The result, in Stefan’s own words:
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.
Furthermore, they now seem to have outsourced this operation from Kenya to India.
Take a moment to consider the accusation: Google was fraudulently posing as part of a Google-Mocality venture and selling business owners website packages. By sheer analogy, it is a phishing scam.
Perhaps more importantly, consider the ethical implications of such an accusation: Google, the ‘Don’t Be Evil’ do-gooder internet messiah was systematically undermining a startup’s business by not just exploiting its most valuable asset (the business database) but also lying about a false relationship between Mocality and Google. Ethically, it isn’t too far a stretch from NewsCorp’s phone tapping misadventures. It’s the kind of stuff that befits asshole media conglomerates, not a technology company that masquerades as a friend of small businesses and startups.
Google’s response has been, as expected, tepid, though it has owned up to the accusations. Google’s Nelson Mattos posted this on Google+ today:
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.
There, there: apology served, a few people fired, and everything goes back to normal. Perhaps release a few free products, make some vague statements about Google’s support of open-source, and the (justifiably) inflamed nerd rage will calm down as well in due time.
In the meantime, Mocality has lost a chunk of its business. As per Stefan, almost 30% of Mocality’s 170,000 business listings were exploited. These listings were gathered after much sweat and toil by Mocality’s team of 15,000+ agents who had to not only go door to door to collect data, but also had to build up trust and relationships with internet-suspicious business owners. These relationships were Mocality’s biggest business advantage which Google did its mightiest best to undermine.
What amazes me is not just the sheer magnitude of scumminess on Google’s part, but the stubborn efforts by petulant Google apologists to explain away Google’s actions. On Hacker News, people went so far as to say that this might be the work of a couple of rogue agents in Google HQ or that perhaps Google was being framed and set-up.
Utter horseshit. Even after Google owned up to the accusations, these apologists continued to parade an endless stream of excuses for Google’s actions, suggesting that individual bad behavior cannot be held against the company as a whole (by that logic, neither can extraordinary individual efforts –Gmail/Orkut, etc/ – be held in favor of the company). You can follow the discussion on this Hacker News thread. It makes for a pretty baffling read, particularly if you aren’t a status-quo toeing bleeding-heart Google apologist (if you are, you might feel more at home on Nelson Mattos’ original apology thread on G+).
With the Chrome fiasco, the incorporation of G+ data into Google search results, and this debacle, the Page Way of doing business seems to be achingly similar to that of a certain famous software mogul who is right now out fighting malaria and AIDS across the world. I don’t blame Page for picking lessons off Gates, but does it have to include all the dishonesty and corruption?