Of online privacy, PR snafus, and self-righteousness

By Edwin Yapp | May 19, 2011
The Malaysian Insider

MAY 19 — All’s fair in love and war, so says the age-old adage. But while this might be true in the old days, all’s not necessarily fair at all especially in the cyber age world.

Late last week, news broke that Facebook has owned up to hiring a public relations consultancy to expose supposed flaws in Google’s privacy practices. According to the Economist, numerous reports appeared stating that Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations company working for the social networking giant, has been urging bloggers and journalists to write scathing pieces about Google’s Social Circle.

Social Circle enables users to view information publicly available of other users who are connected to their Google Chat and Contacts, and includes data such as Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds and personal Web sites.

These revelations of the exploitation of privacy issues, however, aren’t new. After all both companies haven’t exactly been beacons of privacy practices in the past few years.

In recent years, Google has been caught in some high profile privacy faux pas. For instance, Google was caught accidentally picking up unprotected Wi-Fi signals when it was trying to set up its Street View mapping service. And don’t forget the time when Google launched Buzz but did so without asking for permission to use its Gmail users’ contacts.

On the flip side, Facebook got a bad rep with its Beacon service, which shared people’s activities on the web with their contacts. And it came under fire from privacy advocates when its privacy control settings, which allowed the sharing of data over the web automatically, were set as a default option instead of an opt-in one.

But perhaps the most startling thing about this whole debacle was not that users’ information was manipulated without their knowledge but the fact that Facebook tried to use its influence — and a very profound one I might add — to try and get journalists to write about arguably its most significant competitor via a renowned PR agency.

According to Reuters, privacy and security analyst Christopher Soghoian was contacted on May 3 by Burson asking if he was interested in writing an opinion column on privacy issues related to Google Social Circles.

“What struck me as odd was that this email wasn’t pitching for a company but against it,” Soghoian was quoted as saying. “They said if I don’t have time they can write the column for me and get it into places like Huffington Post and The Hill.”

Burson initially admitted to the part it played in the smear campaign but did not exactly reveal who it was acting on behalf of. In a reply to tech portal CNET, Burson’s spokesman said that it “had undertaken the assignment for an unnamed client,” which was later revealed to be Facebook.

“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.”

But after The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons reported that Facebook was actually behind the campaign, Burson went further in its own clarification saying, “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,” Burson’s statement to CNET.

“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.”

In today’s fast-paced Internet world where there’s a mad rush to profit from the vast potential revenue that comes from owning consumers’ databases and the intelligence of their respective online habits, this revelation has demonstrated that there is no time to be fair in cyber age.

Now it’s no secret that Facebook and Google aren’t the best of pals and have taken their bitter rivalry to a higher plane in recent years.

But this recent fiasco certainly was the icing on the cake.

According to the New York Times (NYT), companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere routinely approach reporters and analysts with stories about the so-called misdeeds of their competitors. However, what makes this whole episode stink is the fact that Facebook tried to do so anonymously, insisting that Burson not reveal its identity.

And although Facebook kind of offered a mea culpa on the matter saying that it never intended or authorised a smear campaign against Google, the damage has already been done because what Facebook did reeks of pure hypocrisy.

Fact is, Google’s Social Circle might have had its fair share of privacy concerns but this does not mean that Facebook had the right to try and accentuate privacy concerns by trying to influence the media to highlight it in a backhanded way.

Fact is, both are companies have been inappropriate as far as privacy issues are concerned, and need to provide more honest answers to these issues going forward.

As for Burson, what in the world was it thinking of when it participated in this PR muddle? What would drive such a company to indulge in such a campaign in the first place?

Perhaps it was a huge payday from Facebook? Or merely pressure from having to keep the prestige of having Facebook as a client?

We can’t tell exactly. But what was ominous was the fact that in spite of its clarification on the matter, Burson did not admit to being wrong, at least from an ethical standpoint, but instead treaded on thin ice in starting what I believe to be a campaign to shield itself from further PR flak and rescue itself from sinking further over this matter.

NYT quoted Burson’s spokesperson as saying, “The mistake clearly was not being transparent about the client,” Paul Cordasco told NYT, adding that employees would receive additional training to make them “fully aware of our code of responsibility that emphasises full transparency.”

Is he saying that there were some in Burson who weren’t aware of common sense ethical practices? Or would you believe him in saying that top level officials in Burson had no tacit knowledge of what was about to happen?

Fat chance.

Perhaps it can be argued that it had merely carried out its clients’ wishes in this matter but in doing so, I believe that Burson’s involvement is already a tacit admission that it had set out to perpetrate Facebook’s “pot calling the kettle black” campaign, and is itself guilty of conspiracy against Google.

An irony indeed for one of the biggest PR firms in the world.

And what of us?

In a cyber world, we as users have to realise that our information can potentially be exploited either unknowingly or knowingly by these giant tech firms. Fact is, the more we use their products, the more we expose ourselves online, and the more exposure we risk.

We have to realise that there’s nothing really sacred anymore in an online realm and we have to be so ever guarded over what kinds of features we want to use and the kind of privacy settings we have in our hands to control these features.

So do be aware of this the next time you use a Google, Facebook or any other social and/or web-based software and their features. Find the balance between what is useful and what is private before you participate in it.

Because your privacy is as much in your hands as it is in these tech giants’ hands.

*Edwin Yapp – An engineer by training, Edwin has since turned his back on the engineering world in favour of words in the literary world. A freelance journalist & an editorial consultant writing on his own terms now, Edwin hopes his observations will stir up deeper discussions and debates within Malaysia. You can find Edwin occasionally at twitter.com/yedwin01.

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