Primer: Facebook’s attempted Google smear

The social media giant is busted hiring a PR firm to smear Google, but appears able to walk away unscathed

Topics: Facebook, Google,

Primer: Facebook's attempted Google smearFILE - This Jan. 3, 2011 file photo shows the exterior of Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. The intense rivalry between Facebook and Google The intense rivalry between Facebook and Google just got juicier as characters behind the latest Silicon Valley drama evoked talk of smear campaigns, secret clients and even Richard Nixon. It took a once-secret blogger, known as Fake Steve Jobs, to help sort it all out. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (Credit: AP)

The war between tech giants Facebook and Google intensified yesterday when Facebook got busted for hiring a top PR firm to seed negative stories about competitor Google’s social media feature, Social Circle, to the press.

According to The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons, the social media leviathan hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to pitch anti-Google stories to the media, “urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Burson even offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post.”

Here’s how the story played out:

Chris Soghoian — a blogger and PhD candidate who studies privacy and security — received an email with a pitch. It read:

Mr. Soghoian,

I wanted to gauge your interest in authoring an op-ed this week for a top-tier media outlet on an important issue that I know you’re following closely.

The topic: Google’s sweeping violations of user privacy. Google, as you know, has a well-known history of infringing on the privacy rights of America’s Internet users. Not a year has gone by since the founding of the company where it has not been the focus of front-page news detailing its zealous approach to gathering information – in many cases private and identifiable information – about online users.

Soghoian, knowing better than to act unthinkingly on such a tip, instead tweeted about the emails he received. (Some outlets have reported that Soghoian blogged about the emails, a claim he has refuted via Twitter). Silicon Valley was briefly shrouded in mystery as the tech media scrambled to identify which company had ordered the sting campaign, until Lyons revealed Facebook to be the culprit.

With all fingers pointed at the social media giant, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed on Thursday night that Facebook had indeed hired Burson, citing two unconvincing excuses for the stunt. Their statement:



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.

Soghoian himself has already commented on the irony of Facebook launching a smear campaign over privacy concerns. As the New York Times reports:

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.”

So Facebook has taken a reputation hit, which will almost certainly do nothing to reduce its popularity (nay, ubiquity). And, to be sure, it will continue to compete with Google over billions of online advertising dollars, the details of which Mashable note here.

But the story gets better still: the irony-cherry on the hypocrisy-cake is that yesterday “a federal judge opened the floodgates for five privacy lawsuits to get refiled” against Facebook, the blog Allfacebook.com reported.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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