As the story goes, a blogger named Chris Soghoian recently got an e-mail from a big-name PR company with a somewhat odd proposition.
The e-mail begins as follows:
I wanted to gauge your interest in authoring an op-ed this week for a top-tier media outlet on an important issue that I know you’re following closely.
The topic: Google’s sweeping violations of user privacy. Google, as you know, has a well-known history of infringing on the privacy rights of America’s Internet users. Not a year has gone by since the founding of the company where it has not been the focus of front-page news detailing its zealous approach to gathering information – in many cases private and identifiable information – about online users.”
The e-mail goes on about how “Google is at it again” and ends with, “I’m happy to help place the op-ed and assist in the drafting, if needed. For media targets, I was thinking about the Washington Post, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call or the Huffington Post.” You can read the entire exchange here.
As a blogger myself, I can tell you that if someone presented me with an opportunity to write an opinion piece and then basically told me what my opinion should be and offered to help write the thing, I’d be more than a little dubious about the whole ordeal.
So was Soghoian, as evidenced by his reply:
“Who is paying for this? (not paying me, but paying you)”
John Mercurio of the PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, replied that he wasn’t able to reveal his client. But as it turns out, Dan Lyons of the Daily Beast discovered that Burson-Marsteller’s client was none other than Facebook.
“Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.”
The issue for Facebook, apparently, is Google’s “Social Circle” feature, which connects you to your Google contacts and any information they’ve publicly shared via social networks such as Twitter and, yes, Facebook. Social Circle also connects you to your contacts’ connections, too, as “secondary connections.” Friends of friends, as it were.
As it pertains to Google’s Social Circle feature, Burson-Marsteller’s e-mail contends the following:
“Google is collecting, storing and mining millions of people’s personal information from a number of different online services and sharing it without the knowledge, consent or control of the people involved.”
Which may technically be true, though Soghoian claimed Burson-Marsteller and—by extension—Facebook was “making a mountain out of a molehill,” reports Lyons. After all, the information that Google scrapes from your social connections appears to be information that’s already available publicly—Social Circle just wraps it all up in a nice little package, connects it to your own profile and then may very well use it to deliver relevant advertising to you as well as selling it as (hopefully) non-identifying data to marketing firms.
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