Some people claim that it takes about six years for the latest web darling to start showing its warts. Facebook began in 2005, which means that estimate is right on time.
Just this week, SanJose.com reported on a major Facebook security flaw , which led to private information being leaked to advertisers over the course of several years. While Facebook owned up to the problem and said that it is being fixed, it is now being reported that the company hired a PR firm to launch a whisper campaign claiming that the search engine giant leaked information too. Rather than simply facing up to its own problems, Facebook has decided to deflect attention from it by saying that Google has the same problems.
According to the Daily Beast, Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to say that Google’s new Social Circle was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users,” adding that this was “a direct and flagrant“ violation of earlier agreements that Google had reached with the FTC.
Chris Soghoian, one of the bloggers that Burson-Marsteller tried to hire, was not convinced that the claims were correct, and challenged the PR firm to tell him what company was paying for the smear campaign. When they refused, Soghoian published their correspondence on line.
Soghoian corresponded with Burson-Marsteller through John Mercurio. USA Today later reported that he and Jim Goldman, a former tech reporter for CNBC, were pitching questionable stories about Google’s breach of FTC privacy regulations, and that Mercurio, a former political correspondent, even offered to write an op-ed piece about it.
The campaign gradually gathered steam, and some even speculated that it was behind growing anti-Google sentiment in the capital recently. On Thursday, Facebook finally admitted that it was behind the campaign.
So what was behind Facebook? Well, for one, it is the new kid on the block, at least relatively speaking. And yet, it is a powerful new player. While Google may dominate Internet search, Facebook dominates social networking and is growing by leaps and bounds.
This has started to intimidate Google, which has tried—and so far failed—to grab its own piece of the social networking world. Just last month, Google founder and new CEO Larry Page sent out a memo to all employees saying that social networking was one of the company’s top priorities. He even put a price tag on it. According to that memo, 25 percent of this year’s bonuses would be dependent on how well Google does in penetrating the social networking market.
Facebook further claims that in order to carve out a niche for itself, Google is “improperly using data they have scraped about Facebook users.”
A feud has long been brewing between the two firms, described by social media consultant Lou Kerner as “frenemies.” What sets the latest incident apart, however, is that Burston-Marsteller is considered to be one of the top PR firms in the country, with many blue-chip clients. While the recent campaign against Google was worthy of Nixon, one of the company’s most high profile clients was Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
But not all of its clients and campaigns have been on the up and up. In response to this latest campaign, Forbes Magazine listed a number of the company’s “unsavory” clients, including Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the military junta in Argentina, and the Saudi government after 9/11. This is hardly the company Mark Zuckerberg wants to keep.
On the other hand, the revelation that Facebook was behind the smear campaign does not help the company at all. As TechCrunch points out, what it reveals is that Facebook is a lot less confident about its standing than it otherwise lets out. As Michael Arrington puts it, “It lets the tech world know that Facebook is scared enough of what Google’s up to to pull a stunt like this.” That’s hardly what potential investors want to hear. Are they really that desperate?
But a second point raised by Arrington may even be more disconcerting. In its effort to stand firm against Google, Facebook has resorted to using “dirty tricks.” That raises an important question: Where else are they using dirty tricks? Can they even be trusted anymore?
Wednesday’s revelation of a security flaw may be forgiven. Technologies change, and chances are that it was caught before the advertisers realized it. At least it was inadvertent. Forgiving Facebook for trying to smear Google is a lot harder to forgive.