Mocali-gate: Where is the broken link in Google?

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The recent Mocality debacle has brought to light a few concerning issues surrounding Google’s business practices in Africa and the supposed ethical transparency by which it stands. The internet giant’s “do no evil” motto implies a moral standpoint to which the entire company should adhere. Yet with recent scandals surrounding the Chrome team and Google Kenya, one gets the impression that Google is getting too big to oversee and control all of its employees.

I’d like to start off with a few disclaimers. I am not condoning this sort of behaviour, nor am I condemning it. Google in Africa has made huge strides in helping small businesses transition into the online world. By no means would I like to underplay this.

The other factor to bear in mind is that we are not exactly dealing with David getting trounced by the Google Goliath, it’s more like Goliath vs Goliath’s younger cousin. Mocality is owned by Naspers’ investment arm MIH, and is an US$18-billion dollar conglomerate. So even though local African businesses were involved, they weren’t the exploitable target. Just because little fish were involved, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a wholesale sardine operation.

Was a crime committed?
The claim that Google Kenya employees fraudulently purported to be in affiliation with Mocality can’t be denied or in any way condoned. The evidence that the telemarketers were using dodgy tactics to sign up business provided by Stefan Magdelinski is conclusive. I get the impression this whole scheme was thought up by an eager group of local Google staffers trying to impress. It has the undertones of a plan borne out of the local African scam culture. This does not in any way, shape or form, however, remove Google from liability from the actions of its employees.

Aside from this obvious case of fraud by a “rogue telemarketer”, in what other way are the actions of Google wrong? Is the actual manner in which it used Mocality property illegal? Or does it just bend the rules to breaking point?

In Magdelinski’s article, he cites two clauses of the terms and condition of use of Mocality information which Google allegedly contravened:

9.12. modify, adapt, appropriate, reproduce, distribute, translate, create derivative works or adaptations of, publicly display, sell, trade, or in any way exploit the Site or Site Content (other than Your Content), except as expressly authorised by Mocality in these Terms of Service;

9.17. access, retrieve or index the Site to construct or populate a searchable database of business listings or reviews.

Did Google exploit the site and its data in a manner other than its original intention? I would think so. As a team of “human” telemarketers could have merely been viewing the business directory through the front end of the site and subsequently approaching contacts in order to conduct and further business. I fail to see the harm done to the local business. Yes, it blatantly undermined the efforts of Mocality and took advantage of the situation using subversive tactics, but in economic terms, that’s good business.

Furthermore, I see the distinction between viewing online information via the front end of a website rather than server-side. This denotes deliberate human action over automated code driven scrapping. I realise it’s semantics but since we are constantly dehumanising technology to the point of psychopathic tendencies, I find this raises a good point: where to draw the line. The reasoning behind this is attributed to clause 9.17; there seem to be no signs of a server-side database dump/export or indexing/reporducing it for search purposes. The fact the caller is recapturing all the info over the phone again shows this process and the inefficiencies in the original scheme.

Was a MORAL and ETHICAL crime committed?
Most definitely. Mocality was taken advantage of by Google. I also find it slightly disturbing that little remorse was shown by Google. And no, a four line remark by a Google employee on a Google social network is not sufficient. Who is accountable?

Where is the recourse? Has the employee been fired? Is this an isolated incident or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

There are a few unanswered questions which highlight some morally murky waters. Why was it so easy to move the operation to India? The transition appeared to be seamless with almost no break in communication to business owners as evident by server traffic. Is it that ingrained in the systems of Google? Which begs the question, how often does this sort of guerrilla telemarketing happen?

Current E-law and traditional business models aren’t adapting fast enough to technological advancement. It’s as if the organisation is just too large to fully grasp what ramifications the collective action of all its employees has in remote regions. And the necessary channels to monitor these interactions are insufficient. Despite all of this negativity, I have faith. Google has been a game changer in the internet world, so here’s hoping it sets the example and changes the business game. Don’t be evil Google, it doesn’t suit you.

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