Who Bungled Attempt To Plant An Anti-Google Privacy Story? It’s Facebook

The identity of the company that hired the Burson-Marsteller PR firm to plant stories and op-eds in national publications about privacy problems with Google’s Social Search is no longer a mystery. The BM client is none other than social networking giant Facebook, The Daily Beast revealed last night.

The pitch didn’t go over that well, mainly because Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher who was urged to write an op-ed slamming Google’s Social Search, decided to go ahead and publish it. Once BM’s full pitch was revealed, major figures in the PR industry starting questioning the ethics of the firm’s tactics. “Oh no, say it ain’t so,” wrote Rosanna Fiske, CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, in a blog post responding to the scandal.

A Facebook spokesman said the company wasn’t engaged in any kind of ‘smear’ campaign and was just trying to find out what others thought about Google’s habit of including Facebook data in its Social Search. Facebook’s full response:

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 (NSDQ: GOOG) 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.

You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open: http://www.google.com/s2/search/social. Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it.

Although Facebook might be concerned about Google’s Social Search, the newspapers and privacy advocates it contacted don’t seem to be too worried about it. Soghoian, the privacy researcher who published the BM pitch, said he doesn’t see any privacy implications in the feature; and the USA Today reporters who wrote about it called Burson-Marsteller pitch on the feature “largely untrue.” The feature adds information from your contacts into search results-but it all appears to be public information that one’s contacts have made available-like photos on Picasa, blog posts, and Facebook pages.