Saturday, May 14, 2011

Amateur Hour: Facebook's Whisper Campaign Against Google

So, have you heard about that big Silicon Valley internet firm and their social networking software? There's a rumor going around that they collect all kinds of user data without making clear they're doing so. Wow, how could they violate user privacy like that? Wait, we're talking about Facebook, right?

Including Google.
We're kidding, of course, as geekdom is abuzz these days with the Daily Beast's revelation that Facebook attempted a clumsy whisper campaign about the privacy practices of its Mountain View rival, Google. On Thursday, Facebook acknowledged that it paid a PR firm called Burson-Marstellar to"focus attention" on the privacy issues raised by a new Google feature called Social Circles. What ensued was a remarkably awkward and amateurish smear campaign, in which Burson representatives contacted journalists and bloggers encouraging them to write critical stories about Social Circles. One of these bloggers, Chris Soghoian, received an email from a Burson executive claiming that "[t]he 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", and offering to help write an editorial and place it in major media outlets. Skeptical, Soghoian asked to know which firm had hired Burson; when they declined to say, he posted the entire email exchange on his blog. Pressing the issue, Facebook admitted to the Beast that it had hired Burson.

We've taken a look at Social Circles, and we're not sure how it's any more creepy than much of Google's other activities. It essentially scans the internet to identify connections with other Google users, whether through Google services like Gmail or Buzz, or through online networks like Twitter and Facebook. For a company that reads private emails for the purposes of targeted advertising, this doesn't strike us as a big deal; if you're privacy-conscious enough that this really bothers you, you probably shouldn't be using Google in the first place. But Facebook's shamelessness in this is amusing. For one thing, it's fairly obvious what their true motive is: preventing another company from identifying the connections among the company's millions of users. In other words, intellectual property protection. But more importantly, Facebook's "concerns" regarding user privacy and transparency are laughable. This is truly a case of the pot calling the kettle black, as few social networks have been more reckless with user data (including selling that data to third parties without consent) as Facebook.

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