NEW YORK: Enter stage left the planet's largest software company in the guise of a masked Consumer Champion. In a melodrama produced by Burson-Marsteller, the PR agency mouths Microsoft's lines, proclaiming a quest for "fair and free competition" in web-search and consumer privacy.

However, the duo's true quest is to block the commercial advantage that will be conferred on rival Google if its planned $3.1 billion (€2.2bn; £1.53bn) acquisition of online ad firm DoubleClick succeeds in clearing regulatory hurdles.

In an effort to prevent this, B-M has in recent months pounded the corridors of US and European commercial, judicial and legislative power, tolling the anti-Google alarum.

But the PR firm omitted to reveal its relationship with Microsoft, instead claiming to act on behalf of, a purportedly "independent" discussion forum for issues of privacy and competition.

However, confronted by the Wall Street Journal, a Microsoft spokesman admitted that his firm is both a B-M client and a "founding member" of the group backing

[Yesterday, Monday, several attempts by WARC News to log onto this site failed. But - surprise, surprise - by 06.39 GMT Tuesday it had rematerialized bearing the following messge:

    ICOMP is a joint initiative sponsored by Microsoft and Burson-Marsteller to highlight important principles in online services and begin important industry discussions around copyright, privacy, and competition. We are encouraged by the initial response and encourage visitors to inform others. We welcome all interested organisations. In the coming days and weeks, this website will be updated regularly. Please watch for additional information and opportunities to share your views and join the discussion.]
B-M's covert work for Microsoft was first reported Sunday by Britain's The Observer newspaper. It cites an executive at UK insurer Esure who earlier this month received an email from a B-M director.

It invited support for "an initiative to raise awareness of competition in the internet-search market", and claimed to represent a "wider industry initiative". No mention was made of Microsoft's involvement.

Esure's head of corporate communications, Adrian Webb, said he was suspicious about the email and sensed a Google competitor was behind the pitch.

"Burson-Marsteller acts for Microsoft - this has not been stated anywhere," in the email, Webb told The Observer.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online. additional content by WARC staff