Mocality — a Kenyan startup that operates the country's biggest online business directory — says that Google has knowingly and systematically accessed its database in order to steal its customers. Stefan Magdalinski, the company's CEO, says in a blog post that it discovered Google's behavior after carefully monitoring internet traffic and setting up a successful sting operation to catch Google in the act. In a brief response, Google told The Next Web that "we're aware that a company in Kenya has accused us of using some of their publicly available customer data without permission", and that it is investigating the matter.
Mocality is a crowdsourced operation that built up a large directory of over 170,000 Kenyan businesses over the years, and only recently faced competition from Google when it launched its Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO) initiative. The startup says it welcomed the program, but that soon after GKBO launched, it started receiving strange phone calls from customers that wanted help with their website (Mocality does not offer websites, but GKBO does). As the calls increased in volume, Mocality started monitoring traffic to its database and found that a single IP address and user combination had accessed all of the businesses that placed confused phone calls to Mocality. Since the database calls were made during business hours, Mocality assumed that a team of humans was scouring the database, and so it set up a sting operation to discover the culprit.
Mocality changed its code so that visitors from the suspicious IP address would receive phone numbers that directed them to the company's own call center, rather than the actual business in the listing. Mocality then recorded some of these calls, and it appears that Google called its customers and tried to get them to sign up for a competing product by lying about a partnership with Mocality that doesn't exist. The startup says that about 30-percent of businesses in its database have been contacted by Google Kenya employees.
Considering Google's numerous PR troubles lately, this isn't going to help the company in the "don't be evil" department — and Mocality's evidence is pretty convincing and damning. We've reached out to Google for comment, and will let you know as soon as we receive a response.