Facebook vs Google: The dirty tricks campaign

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Journalists and bloggers around the world last week woke up to an email screaming in all caps: “Google quietly launches sweeping violation of user privacy!” Rightly so, this claim brought a lot of anger to those who ran the story. However, for some, there was something suspicious afoot…

The email, originating from American public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, claimed that a little known Gmail feature, Social Circle, tramples privacy of millions of Americans and is in violation of American fair trade rules. However, as US newspaper, USAToday wrote, “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.”

Last week after engaging in an exchange with the mystery writers of the email, a blogger decided to post them online.

One stated, “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”. When asked, Burson-Marsteller refused to divulge who was the client, they were speaking on behalf of.

As such, Silicon Valley quickly went into rumour overdrive trying to figure out who the mystery client was that had hired Burson-Marsteller to run, what was evidently a smear campaign. Names being thrown about ran the gamut of the tech world, but the chief suspects seemed to be either Microsoft or Apple.

However yesterday, American news and analysis site, The Daily Beast broke the news that the guilty party was none other than social-networking titan, Facebook.

In the face of evidence from The Daily Beast, Facebook had no option but to shamefully admit to being the mystery client.

The statement Facebook released admitted they were responsible, though also sought to absolve itself of responsibility saying that though it had hired Burson-Marsteller it had never intended nor authorised a smear campaign. The statement went on to say, “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”, and “focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst.”

In reply to this — the Daily Beast reports — Burson-Marsteller has not taken to this claim from Facebook lightly and is in return saying that it was Facebook’s communications department which told them to run this campaign.

As to who’s idea this ham-fisted dirty-tricks campaign was, it will probably never be fully known. What can be said that is that facing its own real and verifiable user-privacy issues, Facebook would be best advised to be careful about throwing around claims that at best are questionable.

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