Dan Lyons

Facebook pays for anti-Google campaign

Dan Lyons of the Daily Beast reports that social networking giant Facebook had clandestinely hired top public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to launch a smear campaign against Google on the grounds that the search engine company is invading the privacy of Facebook users.

The Beast uncovered the scheme shortly after influential technology blogger Chris Soghoian posted online an e-mail exchange with John Mercurio, an employee of Burson. Mercurio had proposed that Soghoian write an anti-Google piece to be pitched to media outlets like the Washington Post, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, and the Huffington Post, and had even offered to help with the draft. Soghoian published their messages to each other after Mercurio refused to reveal who their client was.

The main bone of contention is a Google tool called Social Circle, which Mercurio, in one of his missives to Soghoian, alleged is designed “to scrape and mine social sites from around the web to make connections between people that wouldn’t otherwise exists and share that information with people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.  All of this happens without the knowledge, consent or control of the people whose information is being shared.”

According to Lyons:

The mess, seemingly worthy of a Nixon reelection campaign, is embarrassing for Facebook, which has struggled at times to brand itself as trustworthy. But even more so for Burson-Marsteller, a huge PR firm that has represented lots of blue-chip corporate clients in its 58-year history. Mark Penn, Burson’s CEO, has been a political consultant for Bill Clinton, and is best known as the chief strategist in HIllary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Yet here were two guys from one of the biggest and best-known PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops. Even yesterday, when I asked flat out whether Facebook had been the client behind the campaign, a Burson spokesman refused to confirm it. Then, later, learning that Facebook had come clean, the Burson spokesman wrote back and confirmed it.

A Facebook spokesperson told Lyons that Google, via Social Circle, was violating Facebook’s terms of service, and that they were concerned at how Google was using their member data. For his part, Soghoian said that the social networking firm was “making a mountain out of a molehill”.

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