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Facebook Smears Google Over Privacy, and We're Still Laughing About It

Companies try to besmirch each other's reputations all the time. Some are very public about it, like Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison's repeated shots at HP (HPQ). Some try to be private, as Google (GOOG) alleged of Microsoft (MSFT) waging an antitrust proxy war against the search leader.

And then there are the ones who take private pot shots but in such a way as to almost guarantee public exposure. Enter Facebook, which got caught trying to smear Google by using a PR firm to plant negative stories in high-profile publications, as Dan Lyons uncovered in the Daily Beast. The angle? Google's sweeping violations of user privacy. This is, in turn, ironic and funny on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin.

Pot calling the kettle prying
For Facebook to raise questions about privacy seems like a joke that only the most self-unaware management team could make with a straight face. Hey, Facebook -- I don't know how to break it to you, but privacy issues aren't exactly your strong suit. Just this week, in fact, we learned that Facebook's systems allowed app vendors to give advertisers and ad networks access to Facebook user account details -- even if the app companies hadn't intended to.

When Apple recently was accused of tracking the locations of iPhone users, it may have set the Steve Jobs reality distortion field to 11, but at least it conveyed a smidgeon of self-conscious guilt. (What innocent company tries to claim that storing the data that lets you pinpoint someone's location at any given time is different in any way from tracking the location itself?) And Apple apparently didn't even bring the data home, let alone send it to anyone else.

Facebook? CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the age of personal privacy is over, so why bother, you know? Next thing you know, you'll expect Goldman Sachs (GS) management to feel embarrassed about acting as if greed is good.

Double secret approbation
Even more ironic is that Facebook is so bad at privacy, it couldn't even keep its own smear attempt secret. And how could it think that it ultimately would be able to? Facebook had PR giant Burson-Marsteller run around, pitching journalists to write bad things about Google's "new" service, Social Circle.

Burson approached the task with so little grace that it tipped its hand to USA Today, which wrote about how someone hired the firm to run a whisper campaign. The PR company offered to help a blogger get an op-ed published in a major publication, at which point the writer posted the email exchange.

The heat was on and tongues were bound to wag, especially at such inept practice. What did Facebook think would work in such a predictable situation? Say, "No, that was some other company that looked like Facebook?"

At least we can all thank Facebook, Burson, Zuckerberg, and his entire marketing and communications staff for a laugh. Now, then, Facebook, about leaking that access to user accounts...


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