In the last few days it seems that someone was employing this very tactic against Google, and whispers in Silicon Valley began to spread as to who the responsible party was. Was it Apple or some other direct Google competitor? This unnamed party hired Burson-Marsteller, one of the nation’s top PR firms, to feed reporters tips to investigate Google for invasions of user privacy. Burson even tried to lure bloggers into writing stories about it, making promises that their articles would appear in big-name media outlets like Politico and The Huffington Post.
Christopher Soghoian, a high-profile activist and security blogger, was one of the people contacted, but unfortunately for Burson and their unnamed client, Soghoian declined their offer after they refused to name their benefactor, and further posted the content of the email online. Armed with this and some pressing, it was finally revealed that the culprit was none other than Facebook.
A Facebook spokesperson admitted to hiring the PR firm, and shortly after Burson finally admitted that it was true. As Soghoian remarks in an interview with BetaBeat, “Well I wasn’t the only one who got this pitch to write an op-ed about Google, a bunch of privacy advocates here in D.C. did… I get pitches on a daily basis, but it’s usually a company talking how great their product, so this one made me immediately suspicious, even more so when they wouldn’t reveal who they were working for.”
Facebook believes that Google is using Facebook data in its own social media constructs, and that what Google is doing raises some privacy concerns. This all revolves around Google’s “Social Circle,” which lets Gmail users see not only their friends’ information, but also information on friends of friends, which they call “secondary connections.” In pitches to lure bloggers and journalists into writing about Social Circle, Burson stated that “The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day—without their permission." I guess they hoped the dramatics would help.
Facebook has never been 100% immune when it comes to user privacy issues they’ve encountered and user backlash. The whole privacy fiasco with Beacon is a perfect example. But this is different. This is hiring a huge PR firm with the direct intent of smearing Google and making them look like public enemy #1. Now understand that I’m not defending Google 100% here, as they have their own privacy issues to work out, but still, I’ve yet to see them stoop this low. And they definitely got theirs. Facebook gave Burson a big job trying to make Facebook look victimized and at the same time tweaking the news cycle with an anti-Google shift. Burson completely flubbed it, and now they have egg on their metaphorical face. This is probably going to hurt Facebook in more than just the obvious ways (for those who play games, think “damage over time” instead of “burst”).
It shows that they feel they’re playing from a position of weakness. Google’s activity in the social sphere is somehow enough for Facebook to be shaking in their boots. Here’s Facebook, an innovator of social media, and a company that has worked itself into the very core of digital pop culture, and they’re scared enough of Google’s social activities to try to launch a below the belt pre-emptive strike? On top of that they’ve changed the story. Google does in fact have some privacy issues that they need to address, but guess what? Nobody cares anymore. The only thing this news cycle is carrying is how Facebook’s whisper campaign failed.
But it gets even better. Burson sent a letter in to PRNewser after the fact, trying to plead their case, now in full backpedal mode. They say that they never should have taken the job: “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.” Sounds legit right? Read through the whole thing. Their “mea culpa” comes off as one of “We’re very sorry… that we got caught.”
Facebook’s excuse was even worse. According to them: “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.”
Slice it any way you want to. But in the end, I’m sorry Facebook. This idea completely zucked.