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updated 5/12/2011 3:46:24 PM ET 2011-05-12T19:46:24

Big news in the world of tech titans clashing today: Facebook admits to the Daily Beast that it was the client behind a PR firm's clumsy attempt to plant a damaging story about a Google social feature that’s almost two years old. The whisper campaign attempted by Burson-Marsteller turned into screaming headlines this week, after USA Today decided to write about the firm's attempts to bamboozle it (after actually being bamboozled and nearly publishing a front-page story about it, says Christopher Soghoian to BetaBeat).

Burson-Marsteller's attempts to plant a story about Google's "Social Circle" — a feature that shows you who Google knows you’re connected to — came to light after privacy advocate Soghoian posted his e-mail exchanges with the PR firm in which it asked him to put his byline on an op-ed that the firm had ghost-written. Sample line from op-ed: "Google Social Circles automatically enables people to trace their contacts’ connections and profile information by crawling and scraping the sites you and your contacts use, like Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Yelp, Yahoo and many others, likely in direct violation of the Terms of Service for those sites, unless those sites have partnered with Google on this 'service,' something else users ought to be aware of." (Soghoian is a colorful character who I profiled for Forbes magazine in November; PR firms, beware.) The PR attempt led to very bad PR for Burson, given that it exaggerated the privacy fears around Social Circles and deceptively presented it as a "new feature."

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“Large corporations hiring PR companies to plant negative articles in the press about their competitors isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but this is the first sign that Facebook has taken to using these kind of sleazy tactics against Google,” writes Mathew Ingram at GigaOm. “And the sense of desperation that it implies about the social network isn’t helped by the fact that Burson-Marsteller couldn’t seem to get anyone interested in writing about the topic it was pushing so hard — despite the fact that privacy is a hot-button issue.”

Google CEO Larry Page announced this year that he wants the company to make a big push into social, pegging Google employees’ bonuses to the company’s social success. It sounds like Facebook is going to do everything it can to make sure Googlers don’t get those bonuses.

It better come up with some better tactics, though. Michael Arrington at TechCrunch excoriated Facebook for this failed attack:

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[S]ecretly paying a PR firm to pitch bloggers on stories going after Google, even offering to help write those stories and then get them published elsewhere, is not just offensive, dishonest and cowardly. It’s also really, really dumb. I have no idea how the Facebook PR team thought that they’d avoid being caught doing this.

First, it lets the tech world know that Facebook is scared enough of what Google's up to to pull a stunt like this. Facebook isn't supposed to be scared, ever, about anything. Supreme confidence in their destiny is the the way they should be acting.

Second, it shows a willingness by Facebook to engage in cowardly behavior in battle. It’s hard to trust them on other things when we know they’ll engage in these types of campaigns.

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And third, some of these criticisms of Google are probably valid, but it doesn’t matter any more. The story from now on will only be about how Facebook went about trying to secretly smear Google, and got caught.

One winning aspect of all this for Facebook is how people will pass the news around: mainly by posting it or liking it on Facebook. (As of this writing, 1,585 people had liked Arrington's editorial on Facebook.) It's certainly embarrassing, but Facebook can at least take some solace in the fact that it's still the dominant company when it comes to social networking. At least for now.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson says that "no 'smear’ campaign was authorized or intended."

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"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," says the spokesperson. "The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way."

In other words, "Whoops."

He adds: "You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open: http://www.google.com/s2/search/social. Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it."

Such is the way of the Internet: public information made more public through aggregation. The challenge of our times is getting comfortable with that.

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