Google Confronts More Rogue Behavior In OpenStreetMap “Vandalism” Incident

google-g-logoAt the end of last week Google was on the receiving end of accusations that it had scraped a local directory site in Kenya (Mocality) and then perpetrated a scam using that site’s name in cold calls to local businesses. Last night new allegations from the people behind Google Maps competitor Open Street Map claimed that one of the same Google IP addresses was responsible for vandalizing OSM data in several locations:

[U]sers from Google IP address ranges in India deleting, moving and abusing OSM data including subtle edits like reversing one-way streets. Two OpenStreetMap accounts have been vandalizing OSM in London, New York and elsewhere from Google’s IP address, the same address in India reported by Mocality…

In response to last week’s Mocality/Kenya claims Google quickly investigated and apologized. It issued a statement that it was “mortified” by what had happened and was trying, essentially, to get to the bottom of it:

“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 websites. 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.”

After speaking to people who were knowledgeable about the Kenya-Mocality situation last week I formed the impression that it was more “nuanced” than was being reported. Simultaneously, however, it was clear that Google did not authorize any of the conduct described. Whoever did it either falsely used Google’s name — though the involved IP addresses were associated with Google — or was a Google contractor. Alternatively, the people perpetrating the mischief may be “rogue” employees.

Google provided the following statement to ReadWriteWeb about the OSM incident:

We’re aware of OpenStreetMap’s claims that vandalism of OSM is occurring from accounts originating at a Google IP address. We are investigating the matter and will have more information as soon as possible.

What’s very interesting are comments in response to the OSM blog post, one of which says the “vandalism” at issue is very minor and accuses the OSM authors of trying to grab some “cheap publicity” by exaggerating what happened:

As the person who (in my role as an OpenStreetMap system administrator) first discovered this `incident’ let me start by saying that I consider this post to be grossly irresponsible and wholly inappropriate.

The board of OSMF are making mountains out of tiny pimples here. It seems that they want this to be some sort of organised corporate malfeasance on the part of Google which is why they have tried to link it to the recent Mocality incident where there was indeed clear evidence of such behaviour.

The reality in this case is that there is no evidence that this is any different to the numerous other incidents we get all the time where users either accidentally or deliberately make bogus edits. The only difference in this case is that there happen to be two accounts (though we do not know if that is two people) and the user or users involved happen to (presumably) work for Google.

That is the sum total of what we know, and on the back of that, and without approaching Google at all, two leading board members have decided to reveal personal information about two of our users.

It seems to me that this is just an attempt to get some cheap publicity by trying to like the project to the Mocality incident, and I cannot support such behaviour.

Even though Google is not directly responsible for this behavior the company knows it must stop whomever is behind it quickly. That’s because these incidents reinforce the perception in some quarters that Google is no longer playing by the rules.

The whole situation calls to mind an early scene in the film Apocalypse Now, in which Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is assigned to go up the river and “terminate the command” of the rogue and presumably insane Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Postscript: Apparently, according to a Google statement provided to CNET, the individuals involved in the OSM incident were Google contractors using the Google network. One can infer than they were summarily given the boot:

The two people who made these changes were contractors acting on their own behalf while on the Google network. They are no longer working on Google projects.

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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