It seems like the ongoing rivalry between Facebook and Google has taken a turn for the subversive. Last night, a spokesman for the social network confirmed to the Daily Beast that Facebook paid a top PR firm to spread anti-Google stories across the media and to encourage various outlets to examine allegations that the Mountain View company was violating user privacy. The PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, even offered to help blogger Chris Soghoian write a critical op-ed piece about Social Circle — a service that allows Gmail users to access information on so-called “secondary connections,” or friends of their friends. Social Circle, in fact, seems to have been at the epicenter of Facebook’s smear campaign. In a pitch to journalists, Burson described the tool in borderline apocalyptic terms:
“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.”
Soghoian thought that Burson’s representatives were “making a mountain out of a molehill,” so he decided to prod them about which company they might be working for. When Burson refused to spill the beans, Soghoian went public and published all of the e-mails sent between him and the firm. USA Today picked up on the story, before concluding that any claims of a smear campaign were unfounded. The Daily Beast‘s Dan Lyons, however, apparently forced Facebook’s hand after confronting the company with “evidence” of its involvement. A Facebook spokesman said the social network hired Burson to do its Nixonian dirty work for two primary reasons: it genuinely believes that Google is violating consumer privacy and it also suspects that its rival “may be improperly using data they have scraped about Facebook users.” In other words, their actions were motivated by both “altruistic” and self-serving agendas, though we’d be willing to bet that the latter slightly outweighed the former. Google, meanwhile, has yet to comment on the story, saying that it still needs more time to wrap its head around everything — which might just be the most appropriate “no comment” we’ve ever heard.