The war between Silicon Valley’s best-known rivals has just escalated a notch.
Facebook on Thursday sought to minimize negative publicity over revelations that it had hired a high-profile public relations firm to plant negative stories in major media outlets about its archrival, Google.
The Daily Beast reported that Facebook had hired Burson-Marsteller, which worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008, to persuade reporters and privacy advocates to write stories critical of a Google feature, Social Circle. But the effort backfired after a prominent privacy advocate and frequent Google critic, Christopher Soghoian, said the feature did not violate privacy and published his e-mail exchange with Burson.
In the e-mails, a Burson representative writes that Social Circle is “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 Federal Trade Commission. At one point, the Burson representative refused to disclose its client.
In an interview, Mr. Soghoian described Social Circle as innocuous from a privacy perspective and criticized Facebook, which has been dogged by a long series of privacy problems.
“For Facebook to raise the privacy issue, they have to hide behind P. R. people,” Mr. Soghoian said. “Google is a major offender on privacy. But this particular issue is not a big deal.”
Social Circle shows how Google tries to personalize search results by adding items your friends have liked on various social sites.
Facebook denied that the company had engaged in a “smear campaign,” and said that it was simply trying to bring what it believed was a privacy problem to the attention of reporters and privacy advocates. In a statement, it said:
“No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended. 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. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”
Facebook said people should decide for themselves whether Google’s service violates privacy.
The Burson campaign, which included two high-profile former journalists, Jim Goldman of CNBC and John Mercurio, a former political reporter, also pitched USA Today and other privacy and security experts.
Google declined to comment.
Whatever its impact on the Google-Facebook rivalry, the spat has not helped the Burson-Facebook relationship. In a statement, Burson said it shouldn’t have agreed to the Facebook assignment.
“The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light,” the public relations agency said. “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.”
Burson is no longer working with Facebook.