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Apology to Kenyan firm ends Google's week from hell

Google says it is looking into who grabbed data out of another firm's database and misled potential customers on calls in Kenya.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
Nelson Mattos, vice president for product and engineering in Europe and emerging markets, apologized for the improper use of a Kenyan company's database and misrepresentation to potential customers.
Nelson Mattos, vice president for product and engineering in Europe and emerging markets, apologized for the improper use of a Kenyan company's database and misrepresentation to potential customers. Google

The week has been a rough one for Google, and it's ending on a particularly embarrassing note.

First, the company's new Google+ search feature raises the ire of some people and then prompts a complaint to the FTC. Then Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is forced to defend the fragmentation, I mean "differentiation," in the Android market that even Google partners acknowledge is an issue.

And now, shame-faced Google executives are publicly apologizing for some shenanigans that involve their team in Kenya.

Executives at Mocality, an online business directory in Kenya, are accusing the search giant of using Mocality's data to find local businesses to sell Web hosting services to and of falsely telling potential customers that Google was partnering with Mocality.

"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 Web sites," Nelson Mattos, vice president for product and engineering in Europe and emerging markets, said in a statement. "We've already unreservedly apologized 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."

The apology apparently didn't mollify Mocality CEO Stefan Magdalinski.

"Since October, Google's GKBO (Getting Kenyan Businesses Online initiative) 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 percent of our database has apparently been contacted," Magdalinski wrote in a blog post today.

"Furthermore, they now seem to have outsourced this operation from Kenya to India," the post says. "When we started this investigation, I thought that we'd catch a rogue call-center employee, point out to Google that they were violating our terms and conditions (sections 9.12 and 9.17, amongst others), someone would get a slap on the wrist, and life would continue. 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 centers on 2 continents."

Magdalinski said he was first tipped off to the problem when his firm started receiving calls from customers about Web site services that Mocality doesn't offer. Then server logs showed systematic accessing of the Mocality database. Magdalinski set up a sting operation, creating some fake businesses in the directory and when Google called them the calls were recorded. In one call that Mocality recorded and transcribed, the caller on Google's end accused Mocality of offering free listings and then later trying to charge for service, although Mocality never charges. Later, the Google caller explains that while Google will create the Web site for the business for free there are monthly charges for hosting it.

It's unclear who exactly is responsible for the mess. Google has employees who are involved in the project, as well as contracts with call center companies and other partners in Kenya whose employees may have decided to act on their own. Either way, the actions were not authorized by Google and executives were not aware that it was going on, a source close to Google told CNET.

Meanwhile, it appears the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) complaint about Google+ being added to search results did not fall on deaf ears at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is expanding its antitrust investigation of Google now, two people familiar with the situation told Bloomberg today. Competitors have accused Google of unfairly promoting its own services on its search site and rigging results, which Google denies.

EPIC alleges that the new, opt out, Search Plus the World feature, which includes Google+ results but not Twitter, Facebook, or any other social-media results, poses antitrust and privacy issues. EPIC also says the feature may violate a consent order the FTC and Google agreed to in order to settle a complaint over its now defunct Buzz social network that requires the company to make new features opt-in if they provide additional sharing of certain types of private information.

Google includes Twitter and public Facebook content in its search results, but doesn't feature it prominently like it does Google+ content, and it doesn't include any private content from the other sites. Facebook blocks Google's crawler from accessing the private content of its users and the two firms haven't been able to come to agreement on terms to enable access. Microsoft's Bing, however, does integrate Facebook user content in its search results if a Web surfer links the two accounts, and it includes real-time data from Twitter. And Twitter reportedly declined to renew its deal to share real-time content with Google.

It's unclear why Google, Twitter, and Facebook aren't all playing nice so that Web surfers can really get the best possible experience.

At least it's a three-day weekend coming up. I'm sure some Google employees need the break.