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Inside Oracle’s cloak-and-dagger political war with Google

Oracle has lobbied aggressively — and seeded negative stories about its search foe — as the two battle in court.

Oracle CEO Safra Catz at Trump Tower
Oracle CEO Safra Catz at Trump Tower
Drew Angerer / Getty

The story that appeared in Quartz this November seemed shocking enough on its own: Google had quietly tracked the location of its Android users, even those who had turned off such monitoring on their smartphones.

But missing from the news site’s report was another eyebrow-raising detail: Some of its evidence, while accurate, appears to have been furnished by one of Google’s fiercest foes: Oracle.

For the past year, the software and cloud computing giant has mounted a cloak-and-dagger, take-no-prisoners lobbying campaign against Google, perhaps hoping to cause the company intense political and financial pain at a time when the two tech giants are also warring in federal court over allegations of stolen computer code.

Since 2010, Oracle has accused Google of copying Java and using key portions of it in the making of Android. Google, for its part, has fought those claims vigorously. More recently, though, their standoff has intensified. And as a sign of the worsening rift between them, this summer Oracle tried to sell reporters on a story about the privacy pitfalls of Android, two sources confirmed to Recode.

To be sure, the substance of Quartz’s story — Google’s errant location tracking — checks out. Google itself acknowledged the mishap and said it ceased the practice. Nor does Oracle stand alone in raising red flags about Google at a time when many in the nation’s capital are questioning the power and reach of large web platforms.

Still, Oracle’s campaign is undeniable. In Washington, D.C., for example, it has devoted a slice of its $8.8 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.”

And while Glueck did not address Quartz’s reporting, he did acknowledge that Oracle had “substantial technical expertise on Android because Google stole Android from us,” adding: “We have talked to dozens of people about Android because Google’s deception about data privacy impacts the entire industry.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Delaney, the editor of Quartz, stressed his publication’s story “is unimpeachable and revealed an important privacy flaw, which Google admitted.”

A spokesman for Google declined to comment for this story.

The Oracle building Justin Sullivan / Getty

Make no mistake: Oracle’s legal war with Google isn’t rooted in some small patent squabble. The lawsuit over Java has spanned seven years, and Oracle initially sought $9 billion in damages. But Google has prevailed in previous rounds, bolstered by courts that agreed its use of Java code in its Android smartphone operating system is permissible under the U.S. government’s “fair use” laws.

Still, Oracle isn’t finished fighting. The next round of oral arguments in its latest appeal begins Thursday in a Washington, D.C., courtroom. In the meantime, Oracle’s aggressive legal maneuvering has evolved into a political campaign against Google, sources say.

Take the fight over online privacy, which consumed the U.S. Congress this spring. At the time, lawmakers had just rolled back rules that would have required companies like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon to obtain permission before selling their customers’ web-browsing histories to advertisers. Some Republicans said the rules targeting ISPs were heavy-handed and unfair because they didn’t apply to tech giants like Facebook and Google in equal measure. To that end, one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, introduced a bill that aimed to subject both industries to tougher privacy regulations.

Naturally, Google opposed that idea — and speaking through one of its trade associations, the search giant pledged to fight. Days after Blackburn introduced the bill, however, Oracle publicly praised the lawmaker for her work product. Many in tech saw it as an odd move for a company with no search or advertising business.

Then, Oracle purchased mobile billboards in Blackburn’s home state, Tennessee, in an apparent bid to rile locals about the power and reach of Silicon Valley, two sources told Recode. “Internet companies betrayed you,” the ad began. It didn’t mention Google by name, but it still charged that the industry had “sold your most sensitive and personal information for $125 billion in advertising revenue last year.”

“Paid for by Oracle,” it read in fine print at the bottom.

Of course, corporate rivalries aren’t new — especially when it comes to Google. It warred for years with another tech giant, Microsoft, until the two sides brokered a truce in 2016. Both companies realized they had better things to do than snipe at each other, and Microsoft never managed to convince the U.S. government to break apart Google, anyway.

The search giant isn’t on super-friendly terms with telecom giants like AT&T, either. And others, like News Corp and Yelp, have explicitly lobbied governments around the world to penalize Google for threatening competition.

But Oracle’s attempts to discredit Google at times have been more subtle. Last year, for example, Oracle intervened in a wonky fight at the Federal Communications Commission over television set-top boxes to take the opposite side of its rival. And more recently, Oracle unexpectedly declared its support for an anti-sex-trafficking bill in the U.S. Congress that Google and other Silicon Valley giants had been fighting. Internet platforms fear it would open them to new lawsuits; Oracle as a company had no stake in the outcome either way.

“You’ve identified a few areas where we disagree with Google and there are other areas where we agree with Google,” Oracle’s Glueck said in response. “For example, unlike Google, we oppose sex trafficking. I would have loved to have been in the meeting when Google decided to support sex trafficking.”

As the two companies continue their war, Oracle may have the upper hand in Republican-dominated Washington, D.C.

President Trump’s American Technology Council Roundtable with Oracle’s Safra Catz, Apple’s Tim Cook, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, among others. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Its chief executive, Safra Catz, served on the team that helped President Donald Trump staff his White House, and she repeatedly has joined him at public gatherings to discuss tech policy. And Oracle has since hired aides like Josh Pitcock, a former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

Perhaps ironically, Oracle’s ties in 2017 aren’t unlike the bonds that Google had formed with Democrats. One of its top executives, Eric Schmidt, advised Obama on policy and aided his election efforts, and numerous Google employees ultimately landed in Obama’s ranks during his eight years running the country. Now, Google faces a tough task trying to influence the Trump administration, where the likes of since-departed aide Steve Bannon have questioned the company’s size.

But Google hasn’t sat idly amid Oracle’s onslaught, either.

Earlier this year, Google dispatched its lobbying army to the halls of Congress, as first reported by Axios, armed with a slide deck that sought to detail all of the ways its new rival was carrying out its “vendetta.” It specifically warned members of Congress about the so-called Google Transparency Project. The organization appears to have many funders, but the search giant only appeared to single out Oracle. So far, the project has produced research about the search giant’s political activities — including its massive funding for academics. Some of those details became the basis for a story in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

Oracle’s Glueck, for his part, said the company “has nothing to do with the running of the Google Transparency Project and has never seen their research prior to publication,” but noted that its research “appears unimpeachable."

And as both sides prepared to square off — again — in federal court, Google’s allies once again have taken to the web. A trade group backed by the search giant penned a screed previewing Oracle’s “likely misleading arguments” during oral arguments set to begin Thursday.

Their battle isn’t even confined to the United States. Repeatedly, Oracle has urged the European Union to impose harsh penalties against Google for threatening competition and consumers.

To be clear, Oracle and Google don’t have great overlap there, either. Oracle doesn’t offer a competing shopping-comparison service, which formed the basis of the EU’s recent, record-breaking fine against Google. Still, Oracle teamed up with Yelp, News Corp and other Google foes in June, urging regulators in Brussels to take action against its rival tech giant.

In doing so, they slammed Google in a letter for spreading “fiction” — specifically through “its lobbying and public relations machine.”

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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