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Summary:

Large companies hiring PR firms to plant negative stories about their competitors isn’t a new phenomenon, but Facebook’s attempt to do this about Google and privacy isn’t just ironic, it’s a sign of how scared the social network really is about competition from the web giant.

Updated: In a bombshell dropped early Thursday, the company behind the PR campaign against Google and its alleged privacy violations turns out to be Facebook, The social network admitted to The Daily Beast that it hired a PR firm to try to plant negative stories about Google and some of its social features. More than anything else, this move shows that the war between Facebook and Google has advanced to a new level — engaging in Washington D.C.-style “dirty tricks” campaigns is a tangible sign that Facebook is scared of what Google could do if it really pours its resources into building something social.

As the Daily Beast describes, word leaked recently that someone was trying to plant negative features about Google, even offering to write an opinion piece and then submit it to major media outlets such as the Washington Post under the name of whichever blogger the giant PR firm — Burson-Marsteller — happened to be contacting. One of those contacted was privacy advocate Chris Soghoian, and he decided to publicize the campaign by posting all the emails. Dan Lyons of The Daily Beast then confronted a Facebook spokesman about it, who admitted the social network had hired the firm.

Large corporations hiring PR companies to plant negative articles in the press about their competitors isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but this is the first sign that Facebook has taken to using these kind of sleazy tactics against Google. And the sense of desperation that it implies about the social network isn’t helped by the fact that Burson-Marsteller couldn’t seem to get anyone interested in writing about the topic it was pushing so hard — despite the fact that privacy is a hot-button issue. Soghoian has said in an interview that he didn’t think the issue was a very big deal at all.

One of the factors that probably convinced Soghoian and others the issue was overblown is that “Social Circles” — the feature the Facebook smear campaign was trying so hard to raise privacy fears about — has been around for over a year. Even the links Burson-Marsteller included in its pitch were to articles that were almost a year old, including one about how the feature was “creepy.”

If anything, the design of Social Circles should be more evidence that Google doesn’t really understand how social works (a topic we have written about many times here at GigaOM). When you go to the page that shows your circle, you see a giant list of everyone you are connected to through any of Google’s properties, and then sub-menus of lists that detail what they have shared through their various connections. It’s about as social as the restaurant listings in the phone book — and is a typical example of the automated and impersonal approach that Google has taken to its whole social effort.

It seems obvious that part of the reason Facebook was upset about this feature had nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with competition, and the social network’s interest in retaining the walled garden around its content, something it has fought with Google about before. As part of its pitch, the company alleged Google was “scraping” data from it and other services to populate the social circles feature, which Facebook said was a breach of its terms of use and could expose data and connections in ways that users had not intended. It even mentioned the furor over Google Buzz and how it revealed people’s connections in ways some didn’t like.

As many have noted, this is a pretty obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black. While Facebook’s PR pitch tries to paint Google as the company that has been besieged by privacy critics and regulators, the reality is, Facebook has been far more exposed to government criticism and sanctions — and potential regulation — as a result of its approach to privacy and its handling of personal data. The social network may have been trying to shift the attention of the press and regulators away from itself and onto Google, but all this campaign has really done is make Facebook look incompetent and desperate, and scared.

Update: In an official statement, a Facebook spokesman said the following:

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.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Umberto Salvagnin

  1. …..” and the social network’s interest in retaining the walled garden around its content,”…..

    Who’s content is it, really? IFF Google provides social as my content which they just host, where Google’s contribution is the SW which allows me to organize my content, relations and access. Would I stick my content into a data silo?

    Problem is FB seems to want to compete on content and not on SW to help me organizing it. Looks like a different form of File format battle they try to get into, hey it worked once.

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    1. Good point, Ronald — it is your content, of course, but Facebook wants to retain control of it and not let others have it except under certain circumstances. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. The PR company should immediately fire whomever leaked this. Complete failure to actually do their jobs.

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    1. So you are saying leaking is bad but doing scummy stuff is fine?

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  3. So a tech giant goes in for PR and buys underhanded work. Sigh. This is exactly why enterprise is scared spitless of non-traditional media — because they get it so very wrong. http://crawfordpr.com/2011/05/12/social-media-as-pr-ethics-reform/

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    1. Agreed, Kate — thanks for the comment.

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  4. Facebook seems to be working hard to nail down its reputation as the premier low-life company in the high-tech sector, a distinction that previously belonged to Microsoft.

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  5. My PR Identity Thursday, May 12, 2011

    Facebook could easily have done this themselves instead of hiring a third party to do it. Seems grossly inefficient given that it wasn’t hunting down new information. Oh, unless, of course, they believe that they needed to maintain a different persona for this activity than they do elsewhere. It’s almost as if they see a need for multiple identities, albeit using a front instead of registering, er, acting on it’s own behalf.

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  6. If Google has gone against Facebook’s terms of service this time, same can happen to them too. Ultimately a time may come when everyone will use everyone else data for their own benefit. Whatever is there in Facebook is Facebook’s and user’s property. It its not Facebook’s, its not Google’s too. Even though I am not a great fan of Facebook’s walled garden, I don’t think going against Facebook’s TOS will benefit Google in long term.

    If such breaks happen in Google’s TOS from multiple circles following this case (either sponsored by FB or not), it can hurt the Search Giant.

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  7. Mathew wrote: the sense of desperation that it implies about the social network isn’t helped by the fact that Burson-Marsteller couldn’t seem to get anyone interested in writing about the topic it was pushing so hard…

    I am surprised FB didn’t try to get Gigaom to write something. Given the enthusiasm of Gigaom writers for FB vs Google stories, with the latter always being portrayed as the bad guy and/or loser in such stories, FB would’ve had better success.

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