Apparently Kendra Drinkwater, a Napier, New Zealand florist, has been charged with “using the Google search engine to dishonestly, and without claim of right, cause loss to seven Hawke’s Bay florists” and could face penalties of up to 7 years in jail.
She is accused of logging into Google Maps under multiple sign ins and using the community edit feature to edit the critical contact information of her local competitors.
From the Dominion Post article:
The owner of Flowers by Tanya in Hastings, Richie Davies, said it was frightening how easy it was to alter details. It was a matter of simply clicking “edit” on the company’s details on Google Maps.
Mr Davies said he had called Drinkwater once he and other florists had found out it was occurring. They thought Drinkwater may have been the culprit after someone logged on using her first name.
“I asked her to apologise and to stop altering the details. She claimed she’d had her details changed too. That’s when I went to the police.
According to the article, Google’s spokesperson Annie Baxter said it was the first report of “editing with ill intent” in New Zealand and warned business owners to register as the verified owners of their sites to stop others hacking their details.
What do I think of this whole matter?
While this may have been a first for New Zealand, it is certainly not a first for Maps nor a first in this particular industry. This exact behavior was first reported in May of 2008 in the Payday loan industry shortly after Google introduced community edits for Maps in the US. In September of last year there was widespread hijacking of florists by an affiliate spammer. Readers of this blog will remember my hijacking of the Microsoft’s listing in October. It will happen in every country where community edits are allowed. In that regard, I find Google’s comments, if accurate, somewhat disingenious.
It is fascinating to me that the incident lasted only 3 weeks in New Zealand before there was police intervention and criminal charges filed. While in the US it is not clear that a criminal investigation of the floral hijackings even took place let alone any charges being filed.
It speaks to the value of clear national laws as to how basic local business information is to be handled on line and the importance of enforceable penalties if this information is abused.
Is there any difference between what Ms. Drinkwater did in New Zealand and what Merchant Circle is doing with hotel listings? I think not.
I think that Google and every major player in local, would be well served by clear and unambiguous rules of this sort on a national scale. Google should take a lead in establishing clear rules and technical safeguards and fostering a national conversation about an appropriate legal framework and enforcement guidelines that would make this sort of activity clearly illegal in the entire US.
Otherwise, Local will become nothing more than a morass of inconsistencies, useless listings and law suits. Our time is really best spent on making local work not on fighting these inane rearguard battles.