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Facebook's Google smear campaign outed

Note: See update at end of post

Facebook, working hard to shore up its own reputation as a company that plays loose with users' privacy, admits to using a PR firm to spread malicious information about Google's privacy practices to the media.

The social networking giant has been trying to get newspapers and websites to run stories saying that the search giant is invading users' privacy.

Dan Lyons, of The Daily Beast, said that when "confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed" that the company hired PR giant Burson-Marsteller to do the dirty work, "First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service," Lyons wrote:

Like a Cold War spy case made public, the PR fiasco reveals — and ratchets up — the growing rivalry between Google and Facebook. Google, the search giant, views Facebook as a threat, and has been determined to fight back by launching a social-networking system of its own. So far, however, Google has not had much luck, but Facebook nonetheless felt it necessary to return fire — clandestinely.

In the PR mess, Burson-Marstellar in pitches to various media outlets, said Google's Social Circle tool, which lets Gmail users see information about their friends, as well as friends of friends, was "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.”

Even more heavy-handed in the nasty pitch: “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.”

Lyons said the PR firm offered to help one blogger, Chris Soghoian, write a piece about the issue. Soghoian not only declined the offer, but said that Burson-Marsteller was "making a mountain out of molehill,” that Social Circle isn’t dangerous — and then went on to publish the emails between himself and Burson-Marsteller.

USA Today, which was pitched as well by the PR firm, looked into the story, and found it meritless, that "the claims were exagerrated," said Lyons.

Tensions between the two tech giants have been high for quite some time now, as they battle each other for online ad dollars in the lucrative search world. Last fall, Google changed its Terms of Service agreement to block Facebook from accessing Gmail users' contacts because Facebook wouldn't let users share their Facebook contact info with Gmail. 

The rivalry is quite intense, with many former Google staffers getting hired by Facebook, which passed Google late last year for the first time as the most visited website in the United States.

And both sites — which are free to use — are must-haves on users' computers, mobile phones and tablets, leaving consumers stuck in the middle of a very ugly battle.

Update: Facebook, in a statement late Thursday, said:

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.

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: 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.

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