Google and Facebook face off. What’s next?

The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons reports that Facebook paid Burson-Marsteller, a well-known PR firm, to promote a story claiming that Google is invading user privacy by gathering information from users’ social networks.

Last night, a Facebook spokesman confirmed the company was behind the campaign. Facebook justified its actions by insisting that Google was violating Facebook’s terms of service and invading users’ privacy.

The campaign was centered on an obscure Google Gmail feature, called Social Circle, which lets people with Gmail accounts see information not only about their friends but also about the friends of their friends.

Most papers approached by Burson-Marsteller, including USA Today, examined Social Circle and decided the claims were exaggerated. But a few news sites, including Gawker, appeared to have published stories that tracked the campaign’s message.

Lyons writes that the “fiasco” had one of the biggest PR agencies in the world “blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops.” Burson-Marsteller confirmed they participated in the campaign, but did not comment. It’s unclear how much Facebook paid them to promote the story.

Many pointed out that the PR campaign was ironic coming from Facebook, whose CEO has long prided himself on not caring about privacy.

The timing also couldn’t have been worse for Facebook, because it was revealed Wednesday night that a Facebook ”security flaw” has been giving away people's personal information for years. 

Lyons calls the mess “embarrassing” for Facebook. But the company, which insists Google is in the wrong, doesn’t seem too perturbed.