Facebook Admits Secret PR Attack On Google

Facebook has admitted hiring top public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to spread negative articles about Google in the US press.

Its tactics came to light after Christopher Soghoian, a blogger and online privacy researcher from America’s Indiana University, was approached by the PR company.

He posted an email conversation online that purported to show how Burson-Marsteller director John Mercurio tried to convince him to write an article questioning Google’s privacy practices.

In the email allegedly sent by the PR executive, Mr Mercurio outlines the features of Google’s new feature, Social Circles.

He claims Google is failing to ask permission from individuals who will have their profiles and personal data shared in the new network, and offers to assist writing the article.

Mr Soghoian asks in reply who is paying Burson-Marsteller, but Mr Mercurio says he cannot reveal his client.

In a statement to Sky News, Burson-Marsteller confirmed its involvement in the matter and expressed regret.

It said: “The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.”


Google’s social features were criticised in an email from the PR agency to a blogger

But went on: “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.”

Facebook, in a statement, said it had hired Burson-Marsteller but insisted “no ‘smear’ campaign was authorised 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,” it said.

Social Circle lets users of Google’s Gmail see information about their friends and friends of their friends and the inclusion of data allegedly scraped from Facebook upset the California-based social network.

Facebook said it hired Burson-Marsteller to “focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organisation or analyst”.

It added “the issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way”.

Charles Arthur, technology editor of The Guardian, told Jeff Randall Live the incident is likely to have arisen as Facebook competed with Google for the online advertising market.

“Google has 43% of the US share; Facebook is growing but still only has 7% of that,” he said.

He described the attempt to raise questions over Google’s privacy policy as “badly executed”.

“I think Burson-Marsteller got a bit over-confident in how they could persuade people,” he said.

“They didn’t realise how the internet would bite back.”


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