Google India's Hebdomada Horribilis

Rohin Dharmakumar
Updated: Jan 19, 2012 08:23:18 PM UTC

After relatively underutilized degrees in computer sciences engineering and an MBA followed by a decade of tangential career choices ranging from technology outsourcing to public relations, I realized my passion lay in connecting the dots between market opportunities, technology, entrepreneurs and the ecosystems that bind them together. A big fan of underdogs and of possibilities, I try my best to tell stories the way my brain sees them.

"Google, what were you thinking?" went Stefan Magdalinski, the CEO of Mocality, on his company's blog on 13th January. Mocality is Kenya's largest online business directory.

Mocality has built a database of over 170,000 Kenyan businesses painstakingly over the years, in part of offering cash incentives to businesses (about $100,000 in the last two years alone).

In the long and detailed post, Magdalinkski explained how Google Kenya had been systematically scraping this database and then having employees call them up to offer its own paid website hosting and domain services. Worse, the callers claimed Mocality was a partner to Google.

Incidentally, many of these calls were coming from Google India.

Thanks to Mocality's well-thought out and documented effort to bait and trap Google in the act, it had no way out than to accept the charge and offer an apology. In a public Google+ post the company apologized to Mocality, laying the blame on a few contractors working for it.

Three days later, on 16th January, OpenStreetMap, a free and community-edited global map project that competes with Google Maps, reported instances of unknown people vandalizing its map database. Though not anywhere as widespread or systematic as the Mocality incident, the vandalism involved deleting or moving map data and mischevious acts like reversing the directions of one-way streets.

Once again, the culprits turned out to be from Google India.

And once again, Google owned up to the act and pinned the blame on contractors as first reported by Stephen Shankland, a CNET writer. T.C Sottek of The Verge went on to quote unnamed sources saying the contractors had also been fired.

Is it too much of a coincidence that different Google India teams were involved in unethical acts within days? Specifically, was it a problem with contract employees?

Paroma Chowdhury, a Google India spokesperson, refuted the latter point saying employees and contractors were treated and trained pretty much the same way at Google. There are over 2000 employees at Google India and an unspecified, though "significant" number of contractors. Collectively they work on most of Google products.

What I would be curious to know is what was the brief given to the Google contractors in India who were editing OpenStreetMap data? Google has its own product, Map Maker (which incidentally started out as a test project from India), that competes directly with OpenStreetMap. So why were its workers modifying a competitor's raw data?

Some people have pointed out that Google is a "supporter" and "sponsor" of OpenStreetMap, but I think "competitor" beats both those definitions.

Google is keen to mention that both of these were isolated incidents by rogue contractors, linked together only due to the coincidence of being a few days apart.

I spoke to Mocality's CEO Stefan Magdalinski yesterday and he refused to buy the "isolated rogue contractor" theory for what happened to his company.

"While the OpenStreetMap incident may have involved lower level contractors in a few instances only, in our case nearly 30 percent of the customers in our database (170,000) were contacted. I want to know who at Google took a call on this operation, or who ought to have known about it. Google had told me they would investigate and get back to me with an explanation by Monday (16th January) but I'm still to hear from them," he said.

While Magdalinski waits for an explanation, Google has suffered a significant dent to its credibility in the tech community. And this after the terrible incident where Google was caught running a paid-links campaign for its Chrome browser which violated its own guidelines.

In that instance Google came out respectfully by punishing itself - relegating its Chrome page much lower down search results.

And, oh, in case you were wondering, "Hebdomada" is "week" in Latin.

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