Picture, if you will, two young engineers working together to develop an innovative new idea that takes the world by storm: an Internet technology which enables a person to search for specific information with ease. Now imagine that company scaling up to incredible heights over the next two decades. To support that dramatic rise, certain rules were broken along the way. In order to protect the reputation of that giant corporation, shell organizations are set up and funded by the company to advocate for policies and regulations that protect the giant corporation, all while those shell organizations purport to be fighting for the interests of small competitors to the giant corporation.
If you’ve clued into the fact that all these statements are related to the history of Internet search giant Google, you’d be considered a pretty discerning observer of the current tech industry. Google’s efforts to decimate the U.S. patent system to protect its own interests is a fact of life that is becoming more clear day by day. The latest scathing report, published in May by the watchdog organization Campaign for Accountability, highlights Google’s activities in supporting the efforts of organizations like Engine Advocacy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, organizations portraying themselves as advocates for smaller entities, that instead attempt to influence policy on Google’s behalf in many areas, including patent reform.
Engine’s efforts to upend the U.S. patent system in favor of Google and other tech giants has been seen in multiple Congressional hearings in recent years. In May 2015, Julie Samuels, then the executive director of Engine and formerly of the EFF, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on ways to reduce patent trolling. But Samuels is decidedly anti-patent in her views, as is evidenced by former position at the EFF as the Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents. Deriding patents as stupid and employing a derogatory term to refer to patent owners trying to vindicate their patent rights are inexcusable efforts to tilt the patent reform debate in favor of her benefactor Google. Further, Samuels sat on the witness panel of an infamous July 2017 hearing in front of the House IP Subcommittee where she spoke to the supposedly detrimental effects of 40,000 software patent grants as “prohibitively daunting.” Perhaps those software patents are seen as daunting to Google, certainly not the many independent inventors and small startups who invested a great deal of time and money to obtain those patents. Nowhere does she talk about the positive effects that patents can have on a startup looking to scale their operations or simply obtain patents as a risk mitigation strategy. Never does she seem to talk about the fact that patents are used by startups to attract investors, and without funding from investors those startups cannot get off the ground.
If Engine were truly separate from Google, all of this would seem misguided at worst. However, the information laid bare by the Campaign for Accountability proves that Google and Engine are tied at the umbilical cord. Analysis of early communications regarding Engine strongly suggest that the entire organization was a product of Google’s public policy division. In an email dated November 11th, 2011, Google’s policy director Derek Slater was specifically mentioned as a principal member of the team working to create Engine; like Samuels, Slater also has strong ties to the EFF. The Campaign for Accountability’s analysis also ties several other Google employees and consultants to the formation of Engine.
Early followers of Engine’s Twitter handle also tell an interesting story of Engine’s ties both to Google and to DC’s political elite. Excluding spam accounts, the Campaign for Accountability found that three Google policy employees and one policy consultant were among the first followers of Engine’s Twitter account. Obviously, Google was well-aware of the formation of Engine. The only followers who connected with Engine’s Twitter account before those Google employees (again, excluding spam accounts) included the official Twitter account of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was a committee member appearing at the May 2015 hearing including Samuels.
It seems to be no surprise that Engine was formed right around the time that Google started running into regulatory issues in Washington. Two days before the website for Engine was registered in September 2011, Google executive Eric Schmidt underwent a great deal of scrutiny in questioning during a Congressional hearing on antitrust issues. Since that time, both Engine and the EFF have served as Google’s knee-jerk reaction to various issues facing the company. For example, the Campaign for Accountability cited a letter organized by Engine and the EFF urging Congress to undertake “comprehensive legislation” to address the “patent troll business model;” this letter was sent less than a week after Google was sued by the Rockstar Consortium for patent infringement related to search advertising and Android devices.
The Campaign for Accountability also notes the $462,570 spent by Engine Advocacy in 2013 to fund studies on privacy and high-tech employment issues in the European Union. Here, as it has elsewhere, Engine’s reports have ultimately portrayed Google in a very positive light without acknowledging any real world issues of anti-competitive behaviors to which Google has contributed. Although it’s unknown exactly how much money Google has funneled into Engine, the Campaign for Accountability has determined that Engine Advocacy and the Engine Research Foundation received a combined $4.4 million in contributions in 2013 and 2015, and Google acknowledges its support of Engine on the company’s public policy transparency page.
Much like Sauron’s spies, Google’s money appears to be everywhere, at least where staving off political ramifications to its business operations are concerned. Google’s support of industry organizations like the EFF and Engine deserves further scrutiny in light of Google’s campaign of financing academic research overly friendly to the company’s bottom line as well as the corporation’s immense political lobbying expenditures, which it has racked up in recent years. It should be noted that news reports indicate that the Campaign for Accountability receives support from Oracle, another major tech name which has been antagonistic to Google in recent years. However, that support doesn’t change the fact that Google has morphed itself into a corporate titan that would have made Standard Oil seem small and insignificant by comparison.
With each new revelation, independent inventors and small patent-owning startups should feel even more vindicated that Google has been a true force for evil in the patent system.Time will tell whether that ultimately matters and shifts the debate.