Facebook Caught Trying to Smear Google Privacy Practices From the Shadows

    May 12, 2011
    Chris Crum

If you’re still not convinced that Facebook and Google are competitors, this story should make you think twice. According to reports, Facebook hired the PR firm Burson-Marsteller to seek prominent publications and bloggers to blast Google over privacy concerns.

Obviously with Facebook being criticized for its own privacy practices frequently, this is an interesting turn of events in the ongoing battle between these two companies, which has included not only an increase in competition among products,but Facebook’s poaching of Google employees and a more general competition for top engineer talent.

Dan Lyons at the Daily Beast points to an email pitch from the PR firm to privacy advocate and blogger Chris Soghoian, who thought the story, centered around Google’s “Social Circles” was way overblown, and sensed something shady was going on when the firm wouldn’t reveal the client it was representing.

The whole pitch can be read on PasteBin.

Lyons says he got a Facebook spokesperson to confirm that it was indeed the company behind it. Lyons writes, “Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.”

In an interview with BetaBeat, Soghoian said, “I really think this was an attempt by one large company to stab a dagger in the back of a competitor. For five or six months Microsoft has been making noise about Google’s privacy problems. Microsoft was the first browser to include a do not track options, and they realized privacy is an area where they can compete with Google and get good press.”

“The difference is Microsoft can do it publicly, because they don’t have their own privacy problems,” he added. “Facebook is no better than Google on these issues, so to make these attacks they have to hide behind these PR companies. If they tried it in public, under their own name, people would laugh in their faces.”

It’s worth noting that Microsoft and Facebook are partners, with Microsoft providing web search results to Facebook’ search feature, and Facebook providing data for use in the Bing search engine (it will be very interesting to see how that relationship develops in light of Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype as well).

What’s most interesting about this whole thing is how Facebook’s strategy of trying to bring negative attention to a competitor has basically blown up in its own face, as press coverage has mainly focused on the company’s sneaky tactics, rather than any privacy concerns with Google – at least in relation to this story.
There’s no question Google is the focus of a great deal of privacy concerns on an ongoing basis, with numerous critics happy to slam the company. In fact, just this week, Google has been testifying in Washington regarding privacy issues.

It’s very interesting that Facebook is targeting a rarely talked about Google offering that it appears to fear on a competitive level. The pitch said, “Google Social Circles does not ask ‘permission’ from individuals who will have their profiles, connections and other personal data shared in the new network. Google will simply ‘scrape’ their information from dozens of sources and compile the data into one massive dossier aligned directly with user’s personally identifiable information.”

For the record, USA Today reports that “Google said that Social Circle in fact allows Gmail users to make social connections based on public information and private connections across its products in ways that don’t skirt privacy.” The publication quotes Google Senior Manager of Global Communications and Public Affairs as saying:

“We have seen this e-mail reportedly sent by a representative of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. We’re not going to comment further. Our focus is on delighting people with great products.”

Even the privacy advocates don’t seemed very concerned about it.

“I would never have agreed to the pitch no matter what, but I was surprised at the case they were trying to make,” Soghoian said. “I’m a fairly outspoken privacy advocate and there are many things Google does that are really bad on privacy, but this isn’t the thing that is keeping me up at night. It’s something that I had never really worried about.”

What do you think? Is there cause to be concerned?


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.