Facebook admitted hiring a PR firm to pitch news outlets and bloggers stories criticizing a Google feature called Social Circle.
Social Circle collects and tracks data on the social media activity of Google users and their friends.
Facebook came clean about hiring Burson-Marsteller, one of the nation's leading public relations firms, to push the negative campaign about Google Social Circle after USA Today reported on Wednesday that an unnamed client was paying the firm to solicit journalists on the stories.
A Facebook spokesperson on Thursday emailed the Technology blog, stating that the social networking site's intent wasn't to smear its rival's reputation. From the spokesperson:
"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.
"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."
For the last few days, Burson-Marsteller has been pitching journalists on writing about Google Social Circle on behalf of Facebook and the PR firm didn't always disclose that it was being paid by Facebook to do so.
Business Insider may have been the first to report that Facebook was behind Burson-Marsteller's efforts, stating that the PR firm "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."
An email conversation between privacy researcher and blogger Christopher Soghoian and John Mercurio, a Burson-Marsteller executive and former political columnist, from May 3 published on the website PasteBin was among the examples that helped break the story.
The PasteBin account offers a pitch said to be from Mercurio to Soghoian:
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.
Despite an unprecedented rebuke from the Federal Trade Commission last month forcing Google into a government mandated two-decade privacy review program, Google is at it again – and this time they are not only violating the personal privacy rights of millions of Americans, they are also infringing on the privacy rules and rights of hundreds of companies ranging from Yelp to Facebook and Twitter to LinkedIn in what appears to be a first in web history: Google is collecting, storing and mining millions of people's personal information from a number of different online services and sharing it without the knowledge, consent or control of the people involved.
Soghoian, as well as officials at Burson-Marsteller and Google, were unavailable for comment on Thursday morning.
Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, wrote Thursday that Facebook lost "much face" in its moves with the PR firm.
"Secretly paying a PR firm to pitch bloggers on stories going after Google, even offering to help write those stories and then get them published elsewhere, is not just offensive, dishonest and cowardly," Arrington wrote. "It's also really, really dumb. I have no idea how the Facebook PR team thought that they'd avoid being caught doing this."
Arrington argued that "Google is probably engaging in some somewhat borderline behavior by scraping Facebook content, and are almost certainly violating Facebook’s terms and conditions," but that he believes that such data don't belong just to Facebook, but all users of such social networks.
"Users probably don’t mind that this is happening at all," he wrote. "It's just Facebook trying to protect something that it considers to be its property."