Google accused of dodgy business practices in Kenya

Google lost its status as the darling of the internet earlier this week following an uproar over changes to its search results. Now the search engine and online advertising giant faces a fresh PR disaster after Kenyan mobile startup Mocality, on Friday, accused the company of fraudulent practices and knowingly undermining its business efforts.

Mocality is Kenya’s largest mobile business directory with more than 170 000 listings. The company helps promote local businesses through a crowdsourcing program and online search.

On its blog, CEO Stefan Magdalinksi claims that soon after Google launched Getting Kenyan Business Online (GKBO) in September 2011, Mocality began receiving “odd” calls from business owners on their database. They were confused about Mocality’s supposed collaboration with Google.

As the calls increased, Mocality’s suspicions were raised. The company began monitoring its server logs and launched a sting operation to get to the bottom of the calls. According to Magdalinski, their investigation revealed damning results: GKBO had been accessing Mocality’s database — 30% of it as of January 11, 2012 — and contacting listed business owners to sell their product to them.

Mocality has cited evidence such as an audio recording of Google Kenya employees calling up business owners, falsely stating that GKBO works in collaboration with Mocality and then trying to sell them a website. Google later outsourced the operation to India, as suggested by this call to a Kenyan business owner from Deepthi at Google India’s offices.

On the Mocality blog, Magdalinski pointed to a transcript of another call in which a Google Kenya employee phones a business owner to offer her hosting on GKBO. The caller claims Mocality engages in bait-and-switch fraud by trying to charge business owners around Ksh. 20 000 ($200) for listings.

“Mocality has never and will never charge for listings. The irony: on the same call, the caller tries exactly that tactic for GKBO’s hosting fees,” wrote Magdalini.

“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,” he added.

It is unclear whether Mocality would be taking legal action against Google Kenya. “At this stage, we are considering all options,” Magdalinski told the Mail & Guardian. “I’ve greatly admired Google as a company always. This action seems out of character, and very disappointing.”

Google’s head of communications and public affairs for sub-Saharan Africa, Julie Taylor, said they were aware of the allegations and is taking them “very seriously”. “We are investigating the matter,” she told the M&G.

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