As public and political sentiment shifts against the titans of Silicon Valley, the tech world's tactics in Washington are getting dirty. Google has been facing increased scrutiny lately, and Oracle has been doing its best to fuel the fire. In a new report about its latest attack, Oracle's political fixer in Washington, Ken Gleuck, threw around accusations that sound more like Steve Bannon than Steve Jobs.
In November, Quartz reported that Android phones were transmitting data back to Google even when users had opted out of having their location tracked. The story was true, if a little less nefarious than it sounded at first. And Google discontinued the practice. Then, almost as soon as Quartz story was out, Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher who has served as the chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, raised more questions when he tweeted, "After 5+ mo of lobbying @oracle managed to finally sell this important @google @android privacy story to the press."
On Tuesday, Recode cited two sources who claimed Oracle did indeed begin to float the Android tracking story over the summer. But that wasn't a one time incident of sabotage through opposition research. For years, Oracle has been lobbing bombs at Google after it began a lawsuit over what it claims are copyright and patent violations in the Android operating system. From the report:
In Washington, D.C., for example, it has devoted a slice of its $US8.8 million in lobbying spending so far in 2017 to challenging Google in key policy debates. It has sought penalties against Google in Europe, meanwhile, and it even purchased billboard ads in Tennessee just to antagonize its tech peer, sources said.
Asked about the effort, Ken Glueck, a top executive at Oracle, rebuffed the idea that his company had mounted an offensive against Google.
"Google is doing an excellent job of inflicting 'political [and] PR pain' on themselves and needs no help from us," he told Recode. "We take positions based on the merits, based on our interests, and based on the interests of our customers without thinking much about Google."
The most glaring thing about Oracle's documented moves against Google is that the company so often jumps into fights in which it has no clear interest. Oracle isn't in the online review business, but it threw its weight behind Yelp in the multibillion-dollar antitrust case Google recently faced in the European Union. Oracle doesn't make set-top boxes, but when the Federal Communications Commission was considering making new rules for video streaming options that would have benefitted Google, Ken Gleuck wrote to the FCC to argue against Google's preferred outcome. In his letter, Gleuk said that Google is a company "founded on invasive data collection and aggregation techniques, bolstered by its tight control of the Android operating system." This was a strange characterization coming from Oracle, considering it's also in the data collection business.
Generally speaking, corporations don't push for greater regulations on much of anything. Regulations can be great for consumers and employees, but the business world doesn't view them as a route to profit. Still, Oracle was the only major tech company to initially support the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA). This toxic piece of legislation is bad for the internet, businesses, and it could even enable more sex trafficking online because companies might do less monitoring of their own services out of fear of opening themselves up to greater legal liability. The lawmakers who support SESTA either misunderstand its implications or they're just looking to score some points with an initiative that appears to do something to tame the online chaos. Facing pressure from Washington on multiple fronts, Google and other tech companies caved last month and gave SESTA their support.
One of the biggest problems that these companies faced when opposing SESTA, is its name. What kind of monster would oppose legislation that would stop sex trafficking? And even though Google supports it now, Gleuck is still hammering the firm with the most disingenuous accusation he could possibly muster. After saying that there are many issues that Oracle is in agreement with Google, he told Recode that there a few areas where the two companies differ. "For example, unlike Google, we oppose sex trafficking," he said. "I would have loved to have been in the meeting when Google decided to support sex trafficking."
So, why is Oracle doing this? The short answer, as far as we know, is that Google used nine lines of Oracle's code in the Android OS — which it later removed - and Android utilised the Java API for app developers. While Oracle didn't develop Java, it became its rightful owner when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010. Following the acquisition, Oracle quickly filed a lawsuit against Google for use of its property in Android. The thing is, software companies use each others' APIs all the time. It's an unwritten rule that developers only copy the API, which allows two pieces of software to communicate, but never copy the actual code of software that they don't own. Oracle has previously failed in its efforts to convince a jury that its case has merit. But on Thursday, the two companies will once again face off in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
What's baffling about Oracle's dogged pursuit of this case is that it could absolutely open up Oracle to legal issues in the future, and it's bad for innovation in general. It's highly doubtful that Oracle hasn't used other companies' APIs in its own products, and setting a precedent that using an API constitutes a copyright violation is just going to make development more difficult in the future. (Both Google and Oracle declined Gizmodo's requests for comment.) Sure, the $US9 ($12) billion judgment Oracle's seeking is a lot of money, but are the possible unintended consequences worth it?
This high-profile corporate war may be partially fuelled by a petty personal issue between Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and Google co-founder Larry Page. Ellison is on record that he can't stand Page. In 2013, Ellison told Charlie Rose that he has problems with "the Google guys," and "Larry specifically." He went for the easy dig at Google's old slogan, saying, "I think what they did was - was - absolutely evil." And when asked to clarify that he blames Larry Page for the Android fiasco, he replied, "100 per cent Larry Page."
This all puts Google in an awkward position. It got along well with the Obama administration, and the federal government mostly let Silicon Valley do what it wants. These days, Steve Bannon is suggesting Google has become too powerful and many people on both sides of the aisle agree with him. Meanwhile, Oracle mostly operates outside the realm of public scrutiny and is virtually the only tech company that's truly aligned with the Trump administration. Oracle's co-CEO Safra Catz supported Trump's candidacy and took the lead in the executive committee of the Trump transition team. Her name has also been floated for positions in the administration. It doesn't seem likely that Oracle will win its court battle tomorrow. Unfortunately for Google (and frankly all of us), that ensures the political war will go on.