Issue of the week: Facebook’s stealth attack on Google

Facebook admitted that it hired a high-powered public-relations firm to mount a clandestine campaign against Google.

“Google has won a battle it didn’t even know it was fighting,” said Tom Brewster in PC Facebook last week admitted that it had hired Burson-Marsteller, a high-powered public-relations firm, to mount a clandestine campaign against Google. In early May, Burson e-mailed journalists and bloggers with a claim that Google was using an obscure Gmail feature “to scrape and mine social sites from around the Web…and share that information” without the users’ consent. Days later, broke the news that Burson was acting on Facebook’s behalf. Facebook denied any intent to smear the search giant, said Julianne Pepitone in “Burson quickly flung itself on its sword—while also twisting the knife a bit on Facebook”—admitting that such campaigns were against firm policy and that it should never have agreed to conceal that it was working for the social-networking juggernaut.

It’s no shock that Facebook would try to bury a knife in Google’s back, said Richard Blackden in the London Telegraph. “Google and Facebook are engaged in a fierce tussle for online advertising revenues,” which are projected to hit $28.5 billion this year in the U.S. alone; at the same time, Google is desperately trying to develop a social-networking product to compete with Facebook. But surely an Internet company ought to know that “while the Internet has vastly expanded the ground available” for dirty tricks, it also makes it easy to expose them. The approach taken by Facebook and Burson-Marsteller was “just plain stupid,” said Lance Ulanoff in “If you want to show how your competition is messing with privacy, highlight how your company is doing it better.” In the end, Facebook didn’t just embarrass itself, it eroded trust in its product. “Trying to scare anyone about sharing digital information is exactly the wrong approach for a social-networking company.”

You want stupid? asked Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal. The prize has to go to Facebook for its demand, via Burson-Marsteller, that Congress and the Federal Trade Commission investigate Google’s privacy violations. “It’s as if General Motors called for tougher regulation of Ford without stopping to think that any new rules would also apply to it.” Besides, if Facebook has a legitimate beef with Google, it doesn’t need to hire Burson or squeal to the FTC. “It can simply inform its users of any privacy concerns.” Competitive pressure will take care of the rest. Such pressure forced Facebook in 2007 “to drop its privacy-abusing Beacon advertising system” and drove Google to strengthen privacy protections on its Chrome browser. Facebook needs to learn to trust the market.

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