May 26, 2024

Facebook, Foe of Anonymity, Is Forced to Explain a Secret

For years, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has extolled the virtue of transparency, and he built Facebook accordingly. The social network requires people to use their real identity in large part because Mr. Zuckerberg says he believes that people behave better — and society will be better — if they cannot cloak their words or actions in anonymity.

“Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Mr. Zuckerberg has said.

Now, Facebook is being taken to task for trying to conceal its own identity as it sought to coax reporters and technology experts to write critical stories about the privacy implications of a search feature, Social Circle, from its rival, Google.

The plan backfired after The Daily Beast revealed late Wednesday that Facebook, whose own privacy practices have long been criticized, was behind the effort. It didn’t help that some of the technology experts who were encouraged to criticize Google dismissed the privacy concerns around Social Circle as misplaced.

“Doing this anonymously is an obvious contradiction of Facebook’s oft-stated values,” said David Kirkpatrick, the author of “The Facebook Effect,” a book about the company. “It feels hypocritical.”

While Facebook issued a sort of mea culpa on Thursday saying that it never intended or authorized a smear campaign against Google, criticism continued to reverberate in Silicon Valley and beyond. TechCrunch, the influential technology blog, demanded a better explanation and called Facebook’s tactics “slimy” and “cowardly.” Another well-read blog, Inside Facebook, called it “a spectacularly failed attempt at undermining the competition.”

Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, an industry blog, said, “It has the taint of a smear campaign despite what Facebook is saying.”

Facebook insiders, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said the company hired the well-known public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to suggest stories about Social Circle to reporters because it did not want the issue to turn into a Facebook versus Google story. Social Circle is an optional feature of Google search that uses publicly available information from social networks to personalize search results.

In a statement issued Thursday, Facebook said: “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. 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.”

Companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere routinely approach reporters and analysts with stories about the so-called misdeeds of their competitors. But journalism and public relations experts criticized Facebook for doing so anonymously and insisting that Burson-Marsteller not reveal its identity.

“It’s just unacceptable,” said Tom Goldstein, a journalism professor and expert in ethics at the University of California, Berkeley. “Journalists should announce who they are and people who deal with journalists should announce who they are and where they are coming from.”

Rosanna M. Fiske, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, said it was wrong for Facebook to insist on anonymity and for Burson-Marsteller to agree to it. “In the essence of the public relations code of ethics 101, that’s a no-no,” she said.

The Daily Beast journalist who uncovered Facebook’s role, Dan Lyons, knows a bit about false identities. He masqueraded for years as Fake Steve Jobs, a satirical blogger who frequently savaged reporters, companies and public relations people.

Facebook’s secret campaign also underscores the long shadow that Google casts over the company. While Facebook has roundly beat its rival in social networking, its executives, many of whom hail from Google, have long feared that its rival will use its dominance over Internet search to slowly encroach into Facebook’s territory.

Social Circle appears to do just that. It allows Google users who search for a topic like “restaurant in Chicago” to see among the results items about that topic that were posted by their friends on services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Yelp. It works only for people who have chosen to link their Google accounts to their accounts on those services, and relies on information that those services make publicly available on the Internet.

“I don’t think this feature is particularly problematic,” said Christopher Soghoian, a graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University who was one of the privacy experts contacted by Burson-Marsteller. “If Facebook didn’t want the data to be public, it could stop sharing it or it could use a technical mechanism to stop Google from accessing it.”

When Burson-Marsteller, which had offered to ghostwrite opinion articles and submit them to major newspapers in Mr. Soghoian’s name, declined to say who it was working for, Mr. Soghoian made public his e-mail exchange with the Burson-Marsteller representatives.

Paul Cordasco, a spokesman for Burson-Marsteller, said that the firm made a mistake. “The mistake clearly was not being transparent about the client,” he said in an interview Friday. He added that employees would receive additional training to make them “fully aware of our code of responsibility that emphasizes full transparency.”

Facebook is by no means the first to promote critical stories about a rival anonymously. The practice is common in political circles in Washington and beyond, and it has a long history in Silicon Valley.

In 1998, for instance, when Microsoft was under fire from antitrust regulators, it was embarrassed by revelations that it planned a campaign to plant favorable letters to the editor and opinion pieces in newspapers across the country that were to be presented as testimonials from ordinary people.

Two years later, a firm working for Oracle was reported to have paid janitors to go through the garbage cans of a Microsoft-backed industry group in hopes of finding information that would embarrass its rival.

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