Facebook Denies ‘Smear’ Campaign Against Google

Facebook later on Thursday denied waging an alleged ‘smear’ campaign against Google after it admitted having secretly hired a top U.S. PR firm to plant controversial stories on Google to media outlets.

After news reports earlier that public relations firm Burson-Marsteller was pushing reporters to write negative stories about Google and alleged privacy violations, The Daily Beast reported that Facebook was the mystery client behind the so-called "clumsy smear" campaign. Photo: Spencer E Holtaway/Flickr

After news websites reported earlier this week that the PR firm Burson-Marsteller was pushing reporters to write negative stories about Google and alleged privacy violations, The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that Facebook was the mystery client behind what it called a “clumsy smear” campaign.

Fingers have been pointed at Apple and Microsoft when B-M at first refused to disclose the client. The Daily Beast, an American news reporting and opinion website merging with Newsweek last November, broke the news that the mysterious company was Facebook.

The news website said Facebook hired the public relations firm to get people upset about Google feature called Social Circle, which lets Gmail users see information about their friends – and friends of their friends.

But the tactic backfired when blogger Christopher Soghoian approached by Burson-Marsteller concluded that Google Social Circle wasn’t so sinister after all, and published his entire email exchange with the publicist.

In the emails, Burson-Marsteller even offered to help the blogger write the piece telling Soghoian: “The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloguing and broadcasting every minute of every day—without their permission.”

However, Facebook insisted in a statement that “no smear campaign was authorized or intended,” saying it hired Burson-Marsteller to make media outlets or analysts independently verify the privacy concerns on Google’s social networking practice.

“No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended,” Facebook Inc. said in a statement. “Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles, just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose.”

The “Facebook assignment” reflects the fierce competition between the two Silicon Valley giants on on-line advertising. Both companies want to gather information on users, their friends and what they like to sell targeted advertising. It is reported that Google has been using tracking programs and algorithms to connect more members from Facebook to Gmail users.

“Every big player in the valley has skin in the game,” wrote Dan Lyons, the reporter who broke the story for The Daily Beast, adding that when it comes to Facebook, “I can see how they feel under pressure and feel desperate.”

The real issue isn’t the potential privacy concerns connected to Google’s Social Circle (which shares Facebook, Twitter and other social information already public on the Web), but Facebook’s worry that Google is crossing over into Facebook’s social space, Lyons added.

In a statement, Burson-Marsteller confirmed that Facebook was the client behind the Google campaign and said the Facebook wanted to withhold its name from the media because it was “merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.”

Still, the firm said its actions were “not at all standard operating procedure” and that they should have declined the assignment on those terms. The pitching practice also questions the ethics of the PR industry, as PR professional should decline a client when the request is improper, some analysts said.

Facebook is under media fire for the practice. In an interview with technology website Betabeat, Christopher Soghoian, source of the B-M pitching, said that “this was an attempt by one large company to stab a dagger in the back of a competitor.”

In his article “Facebook Loses Much Face in Secret Smear on Google” TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington wrote: “It lets the tech world know that Facebook is scared enough of what Google’s up to to pull a stunt like this. Facebook isn’t supposed to be scared, ever, about anything. Supreme confidence in their destiny is the the way they should be acting.”

It also makes it difficult to trust the company if they show a willingness to “engage in cowardly behavior in battle,” he said. While some of the criticisms against Google might be valid, he said this latest incident means that the story becomes Facebook’s folly – not alleged privacy violations by Google.

Google and Facebook’s rivalry is one of the biggest between any two major technology companies at the moment. Both are competing for advertising dollars and eyeballs online. With Facebook accounting for an increasing amount of time spent by people on the web, Google is prioritising its social strategy.

The search giant has yet to create a significant social network alternative to Facebook, but newly installed chief executive and Google co-founder, Larry Page is supposedly working on a network called Google Circles, a tool to help remind Gmail users of the contacts they regularly email or chat with, so-called direct connections.

It also privately sends Gmail users the names of “secondary connections,” a list of the people each direct connection happens to be following publicly on-line. It had been expected to launch this week at Google’s developer conference, however no mention was made. [via Fox News and ABC News]

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