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Stupid Media Watch: This is What it's Come to

5/17/11

By Ken Magill

Utterly lost in all the coverage of the Burston-Marsteller/Facebook attempted smear campaign against Google last week was just how ludicrous the underlying issue was.

For those just returning from North Korea or Cuba where there is no Internet access, two PR reps from Burston-Marsteller attempted a to get top-tier media outlets and at least one blogger to run news stories and editorials about how a little-known Gmail feature—Social Circle—supposedly violates people’s privacy.

The story broke after blogger Christopher Soghoian published an email exchange he had with one of the reps, John Mercurio.

The issue Mercurio and Goldman were trying to make hay out of perfectly illustrates how ridiculous press coverage of the online privacy issue has become. Too many reporters will bite on just about anything privacy related. Otherwise, Goldman and Mercurio would never have attempted a smear campaign on such a trivial issue.

A sentence in coverage of the incident by USA Today said it all:

“Pushed by two high-profile media figures—former CNBC news anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio, both of whom recently joined Burson—the whisper campaign illustrates how privacy has become a lightning-rod issue,” said the piece.

Replace the words “a lightning-rod” with “an eye-rollingly alarmist” and we’ve got a more accurate assessment.

Check out the pitch: [Warning: long, eye-watering sentence ahead.]

“Despite an unprecedented rebuke from the Federal Trade Commission last month forcing Google into a government mandated two-decade privacy review program, Google is at it again – and this time they are not only violating the personal privacy rights of millions of Americans, they are also infringing on the privacy rules and rights of hundreds of companies ranging from Yelp to Facebook and Twitter to LinkedIn in what appears to be a first in web history: 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,” said the pitch.

It went on to describe Google’s Social Circles as “its latest tool designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users.”

“The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day– without their permission,” the pitch said.

Deeply personal?

For one thing, there apparently is no Google Social Circles feature currently live on the Internet. There is a product called Social Search and near as I can tell, it collects people’s connections on the various social sites and using that information makes other connections—all for no useful purpose that is apparent to me, but as longtime readers know, I can be slow on the uptake.

But check out how Mercurio’s pitch positioned it:

“Reminiscent of Google Buzz, Google’s latest plan totally disregards the intimate and potentially damaging details that could be revealed, including sexual orientation, political affiliation, personal connections, etc.,” the pitch said.

Intimate? Um, call me crazy, but if people don’t want certain aspects of their lives known, maybe they shouldn’t publish them on social networks.

The one positive aspect of the fiasco was how badly it backfired.

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