Has Facebook been trying to smear Google? That's what Daily Beast writer Dan Lyons says he figured out as he followed the trail started by a major PR firm with a mystery client:
For the past few days, a mystery has been unfolding in Silicon Valley. Somebody, it seems, hired Burson-Marsteller, a top public-relations firm, to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Burson even 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.
The plot backfired when the blogger turned down Burson’s offer and posted the emails that Burson had sent him. It got worse when USA Today broke a story accusing Burson of spreading a “whisper campaign” about Google “on behalf of an unnamed client.”
But who was the mysterious unnamed client? While fingers pointed at Apple and Microsoft, The Daily Beast discovered that it's a company nobody suspected—Facebook.
Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: first, it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.
You can find Lyons' amazing account here. Here's how he describes the underlying kerfuffle - in which Facebook seems to be concerned, above all, about unwelcome competition:
At issue in this latest skirmish is a Google tool called Social Circle, which lets people with Gmail accounts see information not only about their friends but also about the friends of their friends, which Google calls “secondary connections.” Burson, in its pitch to journalists, claimed Social Circle was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users—in a direct and flagrant violation of [Google's] agreement with the FTC.”
Also from Burson: “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.”
Chris Soghoian, a blogger Burson offered to help write an op-ed, says Burson was “making a mountain out of molehill,” and that Social Circle isn’t dangerous.
Blogger Michael Arrington at TechCrunch says Facebook is a big loser in this battle - even if it's at least partly right on the underlying complaint:
... Some of these criticisms of Google are probably valid, but it doesn’t matter any more. The story from now on will only be about how Facebook went about trying to secretly smear Google, and got caught.
The truth is Google is probably engaging in some somewhat borderline behavior by scraping Facebook content, and are almost certainly violating Facebook’s terms and conditions. But many people argue, me included, that the key data, the social graph, really should belong to the users, not Facebook. And regardless, users probably don’t mind that this is happening at all. It’s just Facebook trying to protect something that it considers to be its property.
Next time Facebook should take a page from Google’s playbook when they want to trash a competitor. Catch them in the act and then go toe to toe with them, slugging it out in person. Right or wrong, no one called Google a coward when they duped Bing earlier this year.
Arrington's right. The planted story will be everybody's big take-away from this episode. And nothing looks more cowardly than a sneak attack.