The social networking giant Facebook has admitted it hired a PR firm to plant stories critical of its rival Google.
Facebook secretly hired PR firm Burson-Marstellar PR to plant anti-Google stories.
But the plans backfired when one blogger who was approached by the PR firm refused to write the story.
Instead he published the email exchange with Burson, through which he was asked to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy with a new social networking site, Google Social Circles. This site has not been launched yet.
Despite rumours that the rival company could be Microsoft or Apple, The Daily Beast exposed Facebook as the instigator.
When asked by Channel 4 News, Facebook and Google declined to comment.
However, Facebook gave this statement to the New York Times:
“No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended. 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. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”
The PR company, Burston-Marsteller released this statement on Thurday evening:
“Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.
“The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media. Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.
“Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.”
Channel 4’s Technology correspondent Ben Cohen says the case highlights the tensions between Facebook and its rivals.
"I get phone calls all the time from PR firms for technology companies telling me things I should investigate about their rivals with a pretty similar emphasis as the emails that have been published today. But it's always clear who's telling me this and I treat the information with that in mind.
"But what's surprising here is a major PR company thought journalists, and this one in particular, would be naive enough to publish something from an anonymous PR source.
"So it does raise the question- whether there's already been a load of stories about Facebook's other rivals that have made it to press. We may never know. What it does show is how serious the tension is between Facebook and Google in this really important market.
"And what surprises me is the lack of complacency by Facebook who after all have more or less a monopoly on social networking."
It is not the first time Facebook and Google have been embroiled in controversies.
Last year the internet search giant admitted to copying passwords, emails and web addresses through its Street View cameras.
The information was taken from households which did not have encrypted wi-fi access. Facebook has also come under scrutiny for its privacy settings and its ‘Places’ function which allows users to check in at different locations.