Privacy groups and internet commentators have largely rejected the criticism Facebook levelled at Google in its abortive public-relations attack on the search company.
Some of the very reporters and bloggers that Facebook hoped would write critical commentaries about Google have come to its defence over Social Circle, a little-known feature about which Burson-Marsteller, the PR firm, tried to generate negative coverage without informing media of its client.
But even if Google is successful in avoiding potential privacy concerns, the search engine company could still face a commercial battle with Facebook over its “scraping” of the social network’s data, which Facebook believes could infringe its terms of service.
Facebook’s secret hiring of Burson-Marsteller, first revealed by the Daily Beast website, has been seen as the strongest indication yet of the growing confrontation between two of the world’s most popular internet companies.
Google’s Social Circle logs how users of its messaging service Gmail are connected on other social sites, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as a list of friends of friends. Many Google users remain unaware it is collating such information, which is accessed though Google’s “Dashboard” page.
Commentators, including experts pitched by Burson-Marsteller, have questioned whether Google has done anything controversial in bringing together publicly available information, as part of its attempt to create “social search” results that prioritise friends’ recommendations.
“The content on Circle is, in part, simply the consequence of how publicly we’ve lived over the past few years,” said Peter Bradwell of Open Rights Group, a UK internet-freedom campaigner, although he added that there remained questions about how well Google explained the feature.
Facebook’s decision last year to shift its default information-sharing settings to be more open to all has been both a major source of privacy activists’ ire and an enabler to search engines’ gathering of personal data and connections on its network.
“There is some irony in Facebook’s campaign since it is Facebook’s own weak privacy standards that has contributed to the privacy risks with Google’s Social Circle they are now criticising,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a US non-profit advocacy group.
“In other words, Google is taking advantage of the availability of information about Facebook users that Facebook chose to disclose, without the consent of their users. Something about stones and glass houses comes to mind.”
Facebook automatically sets several elements of a user’s profile page to be visible to search engines, unless individuals opt out.
“Google collects content from all over the web without explicitly asking permission of publishers, a system that aside from some very tiny bumps, has worked well, since publishers can easily block Google,” said Danny Sullivan, a seasoned search market observer on his blog Search Engine Land. “It seems odd [for Facebook] to then object that Google is using material that might be on it, especially when Facebook has an explicit option that allows people to block search engines from reading their pages, if the user wants.”
Google and Facebook declined to comment.