Facebook Attempted To Smear Google Over Privacy

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Clumsy anti-Google smear campaign based on privacy allegations blows up in Facebook’s Face

Social media giant Facebook hired a public relations firm to spread anti-Google stories in the US media, it has been revealed, in a story which reveals the bitterness of the grudge between Facebook and Google.

Facebook has admitted it hired PR firm Burson Marsteller to plant anti-Google articles in papers and websites including USA Today and the Washington Post. The bid failed when a blogger approached by Burson Marsteller went public, and USA Today reported what the PR firm was doing. News website the Daily Beast was the first to discover that Facebook had been behind the smear campaign.

Daily Beast exposes Facebook

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg

Google and Facebook have been at each other’s throats for some time. The rapidly growing Facebook site has overtaken Google’s search site in poularity, and Google has been keen to expand its social media ability.

However Facebook’s smear took Google to task over privacy, an issue where Facebook itself has faced sustained criticism, for instance from Sophos.

At Facebook’s bidding, Burson Marsteller told newspapers and bloggers that “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.”

In particular, the firm tried to raise concerns over a  Google tool called “Social Circle”, claiming that the feature committed a “flagrant” breach of privacy agreements. Social Circle lets Google users see information about friends of their friends, some of it originating within Facebook.

BM’s John Mercurio told blogger Chris Soghoian he could help place an opinion piece on Google’s supposed privacy breaches in the Washington Post, but Soghoian instead published the correspondence, in which Mercurio did not reveal his client was Facebook.

USA Today also ran a story on the mysterious “whispering campaign”. Dan Lyons on the Daily Beast revealed that Facebook had confirmed it was the source of the smear.

Most commentators are not very concerned about Social Circle, and suggest Facebook is worked up because it includes data which originates within Facebook, which the social media giant regards as its own property.

Mercurio said Social Circle was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users — in a direct and flagrant violation of [Google’s] agreement with the FTC,” but  Soghoian said he was “making a mountain out of molehill.”

Since the story became public, Burson Marsteller has apologised, but argued that the campaign was not a big deal.

“Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client,” said a statement from the PR firm. “The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.  Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.”

However, Burson Marsteller has promised not to do it again: “Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.”