Facebook PR failure obscures real Google debate

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Facebook’s decision to hire PR firm Burson-Marsteller, allegedly to ’smear’ Google, was a strange one. Not only that, the resulting headlines detracted from any substantive points Facebook might have been trying to make about online privacy. For its part, the social network says no smear campaign ever took place.

“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,” according to a spokesperson for the social network.

“We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organisation or analyst.”

So Facebook admits it wanted to push negative stories. But its argument is that it doesn’t count as a smear.

Of course, the media focus was only ever going to end up being on Facebook’s tactics – not Google’s privacy policy. Now the dust has cleared, how many people even know what Social Circles is yet?

The PR campaign was both underhand and stupid. It involved Burson-Marsteller tipping off journalists as to the fact that Google’s new social search product collates public data about a user’s friends, drawn from social media accounts linked to their Gmail addresses. It does so without seeking the permission of either the account holders or of the social networks.

Of course, the PR firm had to get in touch with journalists to do this, not appreciating that the tip-off itself was the story. They would have been better off anonymously inviting tech bloggers to a multistorey car park.

If Facebook’s big hitters had addressed what Google is doing openly, they might have been more effective at creating a debate. For example, who owns the copyright to what we publish about ourselves on social networks? Should search engine spiders be free to crawl over all the personal details we put there? Should Facebook be able to stop them?

Perhaps Facebook was worried this would sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

Moreover, it might have drawn unwelcome attention to the real – commercial – reasons that Social Circles worries Facebook. Google is trying to create a hub site where all a user’s social updates can be gathered together and access provided to the content their friends share. Given this, why read your Facebook news feed?

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