It seems that Facebook cannot get out of controversy. Just as the controversy around the movie "The Social Network" dubbed down, the company got caught with cookies in a jar, attacking rival Google. While Facebook can be without doubt called the largest and most powerful social network in the world, internet search giant Google repeatedly tried to gain a foothold in that market with several attempts that gained mixed-bag reception. Now various media and a blogger revealed how Facebook wanted to start a smear campaign against Google.

Specifically the US PR outfit Burson Marsteller contacted various media and bloggers to write critically about Google’s Social Circles feature they more or less quietly implemented on Gmail. The PR company even offered to write the text via a ghostwriter. In the request of the PR company some privacy concerns of the Google services were explained. The goal of the scheme was, that critical bloggers would reveal the issue and the agency would then relate this information to big general interest media outlets to push the story on a much larger scale.

Social circle provides Gmail users with information about their contacts. This information is acquired via Google’s search technologies and includes information that is publicly available from Facebook, Twitter, public websites, et cetera. Social circle considers both direct connections ? people added to you Gmail contact list or connections via Google Profiles – as well as secondary connections ? people that are publicly associated with any of the direct connections. This is especially efficient when people connect their social media account with their Google Profile, thus allowing Google to tap into the data.

Leaked E-mail from John Mercurio from Burson Marsteller, Facebook's PR agency
Leaked E-mail from John Mercurio from Burson Marsteller, Facebook’s PR agency

When asked about the customer paying for this campaign, Burson Marsteller remained quiet. Tech blogger decided to publicize the email correspondence the PR outfit which made people wonder who assigned them to start this campaign. In the end Facebook revealed its involvement in the case to media outlets like The Daily Beast. USA Today also had a rather detailed account of the incident.

Facebook said it was concerned about privacy of users. This is especially interesting as the company is repeatedly criticized over various privacy concerns. Most recently there have been reports, that some of its customers had access to data of users they shouldn’t have. Facebook also conceded that it should have handled this case differently. After Facebook cleared up the confusion, Burson Marsteller publicly regretted that they took the assignment. It has been against their policies according to a spokesperson of the outfit. Now that’s some lovely damage control here.

It should be noted, that Google is already under heavy scrutiny over privacy concerns. Several governments watch the activities of the company very closely. Some even raid their offices. Last year there was a big public discussion over Google collecting Wi-Fi data with their street view cars. When the location tracking incident on the iPhone became public recently, there were also critical reports about Google doing the same.

In the fall of 2010 there was already a public dispute between Facebook and Google over how much data each of the companies allows the other to use. Basically it was about Google using information from social networks whereas Facebook wanted to get information stored on Gmail accounts – the infamous friend finder sucking up every possible connection with other people based on your contacts and emails. Now the two giants clash their fists again. Facebook and Google can be regarded as fierce competitors. While Google dominates the internet search market and uses this position to sell ads, Facebook is the biggest social network and starts to capitalize on that via social ads. Google has attempted to start a social network of its own, but until now the best they’ve come up is claiming YouTube is kind of a social network as well.

Here comes a little hint for Facebook. If Google starts to launch a new service or incorporate new features into existing services, that can be regarded a threat to privacy, critical media will discuss it. The same will happen with Facebook and other social media providers as well. There is really no need for smear campaigns. That will just damage your own image. If you want to continue to spend money on discrediting yourself, sure go ahead. That will at least provide us with good laughs.