The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently posted a commentary coming out against a decision in yet another patent lawsuit – this time, the Apple-Samsung battle – saying the verdict in favour of Apple stifled innovation and consumer choice. These are certainly reasonable arguments. But in the light of money the EFF received from Google, unseemly questions arise concerning the non-profit organisation's motives.
The Android operating system used by most of Samsung's smartphones, of course, comes from Google. And as Dan Costa noted at the start of the week, this ostensibly Apple vs. Samsung case actually has a huge impact on Google's mobile ambitions.
While I don't believe that the EFF is in collusion with Google or intentionally white-washing all its coverage of the Internet giant, the mere appearance of a conflict is a troubling concern. That's too bad, because the EFF's fight against not only this kind of patent trolling, but in support of privacy and Internet neutrality, free speech, and other vital causes, should not be tainted by any mercenary influences.
And in the case of Google, there's more need for a watchdog group like the EFF to keep an eye on it than there is with just about any other institution. This is because Google is arguably the world's largest potential threat to privacy, considering it stores more personal data from more sources than any other entity in history.
Not only does Google have browsing data from both its web services and browser, but also possesses location information about every Android user, and transcribed words from every Google Voice message. And with its push for mobile payments using NFC in phones, it may soon have personal financial data.
This relationship between Google and the EFF came to light during the Oracle vs. Google patent case, in which Oracle accused Google of violating its patents for Java. Google makes extensive use of Java in its Android mobile operating system. Even though a jury ruled that Google didn't violate the patents, Judge William Alsup directed the parties to file a statement identifying financial relationships with "all authors, journalists, commentators, or bloggers who have reported or commented" on the case. Google's first response named no names, claiming that "neither Google nor its counsel has paid an author, journalist, commentator, or blogger to report or comment on any issues in this case."
On the judge's second request, Google actually provided names of writers whose organisations had ties to the search giant. Among them was the EFF. Google, in its filing, stated that it "has contributed to the EFF for years before the complaint in the case at bar was filed," and then goes on to list articles by EFF writers, including several by EFF staff attorney Julie Samuels, all supporting Google's side, with titles like "Oracle vs. Google and the Dangerous Implications of Treating APIs as Copyrightable," and "Oracle vs. Google Shows the Folly of U.S. Software Patent Law."
Clearly, the positions held in these articles fit right in with the EFF's stated mission of openness and interoperability in technology. But even the whiff of influence from Google is worrisome. And indeed, in past years the EFF has come down against the "don't be evil" search and data collection giant. Samuels herself has even recently criticised Google for its opaque process of content removal based on patent claims. The organisation also came down hard on Google for the Safari privacy circumvention, calling for Do Not Track (a browser privacy technology that Chrome is the only remaining major web browser not to support).
I contacted the EFF to get their response to all this. Media relations director and digital rights analyst Rebecca Jeschke got back to me with the following statement:
"We don't think there's an appearance of a conflict of interest. We commented on Google vs. Oracle, both in blog posts and to the press, but we stand by our analysis and our reputation speaks for itself. Our views are always our own."
She then went on to detail a very full disclosure of all the monies the organisation had received from Google, including a $10,000 (£6,300) unrestricted gift in 2010, and employee gift matches to the tune of $194,006.60 (£123,000).
But on the techie discussion site Slashdot, some users have weighed in on the relationship between the EFF and Google with very different opinions. For example, commenter "cornicefire" writes: "Face it. A big part of [the EFF's] budget comes from Google billionaires and so it shouldn't be surprising that they're seeing eye to eye,” adding "Both Google and [the] NSA spy on Americans, but the EFF really protests about one of them."
Meanwhile, BBC News reported that "[t]he search giant paid $1m to the organisation in 2011 after being fined over privacy-rights violations which the EFF had championed."
We need organisations like the EFF as watchdogs against industry abuses. And these organisations need funding, which inevitably comes from businesses with lots of cash to spare, such as Google. In all likelihood, the EFF is simply pursuing its mission without allowing the motives of its donors to influence the organisation.
Unfortunately, even the appearance of a conflict of interest weakens the EFF's much-needed voice. As long as the EFF's mission is to champion privacy, it ought to reject donations from the very companies that it should be keeping a close eye on. To be clear, Google is at the forefront of that list of companies. Let us know in the comments section below whether you think there is a conflict of interest here.
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