Who can deny that Oracle Corp. has egg on its face?
Widely reported Wednesday, the networking software titan admitted to hiring Investigative Group International, a prominent firm that has worked for lawyers representing President Clinton, to investigate a series of public advocacy groups with close ties to Microsoft. Garnering the most attention is the apparently true, though still a bit murky, allegation that investigators attempted to purchase one pro-Microsoft group's trash to do their snooping.
So does Oracle have anything to apologize for? According to the company, not much. An Oracle press release insisted that a number of pro-Microsoft groups "were misrepresenting themselves as independent advocacy groups, when in fact their work was funded by Microsoft for the express purpose of influencing public opinion in favor of Microsoft during its antitrust trial." Late Wednesday, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison told reporters he felt "very good about what we did" and even called the snooping a "civic duty."
Just another example of a corporate bigwig putting a brave face on his own sleazy behavior? Actually, no. Oracle's investigations were at least partly responsible for uncovering Microsoft's very real chicanery. Microsoft established a number of front groups to argue the Microsoft line as putative independent trade associations, and then bought support from an even larger number of conservative political advocacy groups. The description in Wednesday's New York Times of the Association for Competitive Technology (an apparent subject of the spies) as a "pro-Microsoft trade group" is a terribly generous way to characterize what is little more than a front group, organized at Microsoft's behest, which does little else but reflexively parrot the company line.
The same goes for another Microsoft front group, Americans for Technology Leadership (ATL), which was founded by Jonathan Zuck, the president of the Association for Competitive Technology. What kind of organization is ATL? The group's executive director, Josh Mathis, also happens to work for the public relations firm that is handling Microsoft's "grass-roots" campaign against the Justice Department antitrust suit.
This is just a small piece of a monstrous lobbying network Microsoft assembled, including: the company's hiring of Ralph Reed to get supporters of George W. Bush to write letters to Bush encouraging their candidate to back Microsoft; the company's effort to hire friends and associates of various state attorneys general to lobby them to drop the case against Microsoft, and other miscellaneous antics.
Obviously, if anyone at IGI broke the law, the guilty parties should be tried. And if anyone at Oracle was complicit in such lawbreaking -- something a company spokesman strenuously and unequivocally denies -- then they should be punished as well. But while his motives are certainly anything but selfless, it's hard not to conclude that Oracle's Ellison did do something of a public service in helping bring this information to light. And perhaps it's appropriate that IGI is so much a part the brass-knuckle political and legal infighting that has surrounded so many of the so-called Clinton scandals, since the political hardball now being played between giants in the software industry does have a certain resemblance to the take-no-prisoners, win-at-any-cost street fighting that took place in 1998 between the White House and Ken Starr.
The intensity of emotion and enmity between Microsoft and its enemies has, for many, an almost pathological quality. People familiar with the technology industry, and the antipathies that rage among the industry titans, express little surprise that Ellison would have been the one to take the risk of getting his hands dirty in the way that he did. (His loathing of Gates and his company runs that deep.) Clinton's investigator Starr found out, to his chagrin, that obsessively looking for the truth can take on the appearance of a vast conspiracy in the public mind and leave the pursuer as damaged as the pursued. But in this case the conspiracy -- at least in the very loose sense of the word -- was one that Microsoft hatched on Washington and the public, and one which Oracle simply sleuthed out.
Microsoft hasn't done anything illegal in its campaign to defeat the legal case against it. And it's certainly not the only one in corporate America to go in for this sort of activity. But the company has already indulged in so many low-rent, deceptive tactics that it's not on firm ground complaining about Oracle, even if Ellison and company have gotten their own hands a little dirty digging through Bill Gates' garbage.