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Facebook accused of covert smear campaign against Google

Facebook acknowledges it hired a high-powered public relations firm to encourage news outlets to focus on privacy concerns over Google's Social Circles social networking feature.

May 13, 2011|By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times

Facebook Inc.'s efforts to portray itself as a trustworthy guardian of the Internet's town square are being undermined — once again — by accusations that the social network launched a covert smear campaign against rival Google Inc.

The world's largest online network acknowledged Thursday that it had paid a high-powered public relations firm to push news organizations to report that a new Google feature was putting users' personal data in jeopardy and that the Internet search giant was guilty of "sweeping violations of user privacy."

Facebook's stealth attack could dent the company's reputation and credibility, especially as Congress takes a hard look at Internet privacy issues.

"Rather than bring this story front and center, Facebook tried to manipulate it in back channels," said Brian Solis of research advisory firm Altimeter Group. "It goes against everything that new media and social networking are about."

Facebook acknowledged it had hired public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to "focus attention" on privacy concerns with a new Google social networking feature called Social Circles. But it said its aim was not to disparage Google.

"No 'smear' campaign was authorized or intended," Facebook said in a statement. "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."

The company added that "the issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way."

The admission spotlighted the increasingly intense rivalry between two Internet titans, and the fierce tactics they employ in battling over the $30-billion online advertising market.

Google has been ramping up efforts to compete with Facebook and its 600 million users, even offering bonuses to Google employees for developing social networking features.

Facebook has long said it stood for cherished online tenets of openness and authenticity, but the Palo Alto company has faced years of repeated criticism about the ways it shares users' information with advertisers and with other users.

Just this week, congressional members asked Facebook to explain a security vulnerability that gave advertisers and others access to users' accounts and personal information.

Facebook's attack on Google's privacy record, first confirmed by the Daily Beast website, began with its decision to hire Burson-Marsteller, whose past clients have included Google archrival Microsoft Corp. as well as oil giant BP and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was a presidential candidate.

Burson then contacted several journalists and bloggers, including University of Indiana researcher Chris Soghoian, encouraging them to write critically of Google's Social Circles. The little-known feature of Google's address book scans the Web to collect information about users' online activities, including whether they belong to Facebook.

The billions of connections among Facebook users, a kind of master list of the online world's relationships that the company calls the "social graph," is one of Facebook's most closely guarded pieces of intellectual property.

"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," a Burson executive wrote in an email to Soghoian, which the blogger posted online.

Burson offered to "assist in the drafting" of an editorial about the issue and then help "place" it with media outlets, including the Washington Post and Politico.

Skeptical about the offer and the claims against Google, Soghoian asked for the identity of the firm that hired Burson. But a Burson representative declined to say. Soghoian then posted the exchange online.

Meanwhile, USA Today said its reporters also found the claims questionable, adding further intrigue to the mystery.

On Thursday, Dan Lyons, a Daily Beast reporter, said he had uncovered information linking Facebook to the Burson email campaign. Confronted with the information, Facebook confirmed it had hired Burson, according to Lyons, who called the situation a mess "worthy of a Nixon reelection campaign."

Within hours, Burson released a statement saying that the PR campaign was "not at all standard operating procedure" and "should have been declined." It also said that Facebook had "requested that its name be withheld."

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google declined to comment.

Facebook's whisper campaign is a common strategy in politics in which one candidate seeks to spread rumors about an opponent, several experts noted.

"It's not so much the strategy but the execution which seems remarkably amateurish," said Jerry Swerling, director of public relations studies at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. "To think that this wouldn't somehow blow up in this age of total transparency is just very naive."

david.sarno@latimes.com

Times staff writers Shan Li and Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.

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