Google Silent As Media Rips Facebook Over Social Circle

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2011-05-14

Google Silent As Media Rips Facebook Over Social Circle

While the media echo chamber continues to rage around Facebook for its hiring of public relations firm Burson-Marstellar to engage in a smear campaign against Google over its social-data collection, the search-engine giant has remained largely silent.

While Google acknowledged seeing evidence of Facebook's stunt, it has taken the high road as it prepares its response.

eWEEK and most other media outlets covering this issue attended Google I/O with several Google executives who, no doubt, are quietly stewing even as the press happily pounds its social-network rival from down the road into submission.

Google has weathered two major privacy storms-one for Google Buzz, one for Street View-in the past year-plus to be sufficiently chastened and cautious. The last thing it wants is a new privacy snafu.

For those in the tech world who may have been living under a rock in the last 48 hours, green public relations representatives from the venerable Burson-Marstellar were caught trying to solicit disparaging coverage of Google.

Worse, they did so on behalf of Facebook, the same company that is being taken to task by Congress over a new security flaw that exposes user data, and tried to keep it on the down low.

According to The Daily Beast, Burson-Marstellar pitched bloggers and reporters a story about how Google's Social Circle trampled user privacy.

This feature of Google's Social Search product lets people with Google accounts see the Websites with which their friends and their friends of their friends are associated. The PR people argued this service infringed on users' privacy rights by scraping their personal data from other Websites without their express consent.

These secondary connections are crucial to help Google build out its own social graph, something its Google Buzz service has failed to successfully achieve at scale since its launch in February 2010. Search Engine Land detailed how this service works.

Burson-Marstellar pitched this to blogger and privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian, who as a regular critic of Google's privacy practices, actually dismissed the data-scraping practice as minor and posted the pitch online.

The pitch reads, in a serious, sober tone that Social Circle is "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."

Burson added: "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."

Facebook, Burson Still Wiping Egg from Their Faces


When Soghoian asked Burson who its client was, it declined to say, citing its client's wish to remain anonymous. Soghoian then took the e-mail pitch public and The Daily Beast pounced.

When the Beast story ran, Facebook admitted to being Burson's secretive client, fanning the flames of a long-running media war over social data. Facebook, you see, is peeved that Social Circle provides paths to its social-network users.

Facebook also knows Buzz and Street View have forever cast privacy clouds over Google. Pushing the privacy-infringement issue is as easy as clicking one of Facebook's ubiquitous Like buttons.

In the aftermath, the media have mercilessly pounded Facebook and its PR cohort, which threw the blame at Facebook's feet, over no-nos in ethical journalism. TechCrunch wisely noted the sleaziness.

The New York Times spoke to Tom Goldstein, a journalism professor and expert in ethics at the University of California, Berkeley, who said: "Journalists should announce who they are and people who deal with journalists should announce who they are and where they are coming from."

Facebook tried damage control, issuing this statement to eWEEK and others:

No 'smear' campaign was authorized 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. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.

The one part that rings true in that statement is that Facebook should have presented the issue in a "serious and transparent way." As it stands, the handling of this issue by both Facebook and Burson, and even each company's explanations have been an utter joke.

All of this has made Google look more like the victim, a defendant wrongfully accused in court who has been vindicated by evidence of the plaintiffs' gross smear campaign.

Which is exactly what this was, contrary to Facebook's position. What will be interesting to see in the coming weeks is whether Google fires back.

With Facebook and Burson roasting slowly over the white-hot media spit, it certainly can afford to let things cool down before responding.


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