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Facebook admits attempt to smear Google

Embarrassment for networking site's negative story campaign against rival.

Facebook has confessed to paying a PR agency to carry out a smear campaign against internet giant Google.

Burson-Marsteller was hired by the social networking site to plant negative stories about the search engine, focussing on its (at times, contentious) privacy policies. The PR company then went to Christopher Soghoian, a popular blogger on issues of internet security, asking him to investigate Google in return for publication on the Huffington Post and other websites.

The revelation has been deeply embarrassing for all involved, as competition between Facebook and Google for online traffic increases. It is rumoured that Google's co-founder and chief executive Larry Page is behind Google Social Circles, a new site to rival Facebook's global domination in online networking. The venture was expected to be launched at the company's developer conference earlier this week, yet went unmentioned at the event.

Facebook defended its actions, saying: "No 'smear' campaign was authorised 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. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organisation or analyst."

However, it went on to admit that: "The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way."

Burson expressed regret for its involvement. It said in a statement: "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."

Rosanna Fiske, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America called it a "significant ethical lapse" on the part of the PR company.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.