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Spying on Microsoft: Arrogance or Public Service?

By the Epopt in News
Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 04:10:55 PM EST
Tags: News (all tags)

Moving aggressively to further adapt its product line for the Internet, Oracle on Wednesday unveiled new versions of its Internet Application Server and the Oracle8i database. But the vendor's product announcements were overshadowed by news that Oracle hired a detective agency to investigate allies of Microsoft and the software company's political activities.

Oracle disclosed Tuesday that it hired a detective agency, Investigative Group International Inc., to investigate trade groups that have backed Microsoft in its efforts to fight the U.S. government's antitrust case. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said Wednesday that he was unaware of IGI's actions--which included attempts to purchase one group's trash, according to a Wall Street Journal report--but nevertheless defended Oracle's moves.

"They target us, we're going to fight back," said Ellison, citing what he called Microsoft's efforts to destroy competitors such as Oracle. "Microsoft broke the law by destroying Netscape," he said, justifying his company's actions. When reporters asked if that was an arrogant view, Ellison replied: "I don't think that's arrogance. I think that's a public service."

Is Microsoft so evil that any action against them is justified? Do they have no rights whatsoever? Is Larry Ellison qualified to decide that the public needs to be served and how to serve it? Tune in next week to hear God say, "The difference is that I don't want to be Larry Ellison."


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Spying on Microsoft: Arrogance or Public Service? | 38 comments (28 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Corporate spying (4.20 / 4) (#6)
by Denor on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 03:01:50 PM EST

  I don't know a whole lot about the laws regarding what you can and can't find out about another company, and in what manner it's legal to do so.
  That being said, I find it odd that these companies are so up in arms about being spied on. (public) Corporations have a legal obligation to make money for their shareholders. You can make more money if you know what your competition's doing. Trying to find that out is the fun part. While dumpster diving may not be the most hygenic of practices, I don't really see anything wrong with it. Heck, I don't see anything wrong with offering a bribe to the janitors so they'll bring the competitor's trash to you. (It's not your fault that they're willing to take a bribe, right?) It might not be the prettiest thing to do, but I think there are degrees in wrongness here. I mean, when you fund a company and then have that company claim that it's "Independant" (wasn't one of MS's proxy companies called "The Independant Group"?) that seems a bit more morally shady than going through someones garbage.


Crime Watch (2.85 / 7) (#8)
by bmetzler on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 03:20:16 PM EST

Where I live, we have Crime Watch neighborhoods. Police Officers don't walk a beat, instead, the neighbors all watch out for suspicious behaviour. Now, that's a good thing, and the police department promotes it. But what if the police department didn't? What if they didn't care?

What would you do if your neighbors house was broken into in the middle of the day and everyone saw who did it, but the police didn't do anything about it? Now what if everyday they broke into another house in the neighborhood? Would you just say, "Well, whatever. If the police don't arrest the thug, then I guess it doesn't matter." Or maybe you'd get together with the rest of the neighbors and watch what this thug was doing, and try to prevent him from breaking into any more homes.

If the police would just arrest the thug, there'd be no more problems. But when they don't, unless you don't care what he does to you, then you have to protect yourself. And it's the same thing with Microsoft. If the goverment would just get rid of them, everyone would be fine. But the goverment hasn't been able to prevent Microsoft from breaking the law. And after a time, you just need to do what it takes to protect yourself.

What Oracle did was a public service. Like a neighborhood crime watch. Sometimes, you just need to do what it takes. It would be better though if the goverment would just stop Microsoft from doing wrong.

www.bmetzler.org - it's not just a personal weblog, it's so much more.
Re: Crime Watch (2.50 / 2) (#21)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 08:16:08 AM EST

Yes but this is not a public service. This is a move designed to gain more business and money. Your examples are not applicable in this situation. Question: If it was a public service, what exactly would the public gain from Oracle knowing about Microsoft? Do you think that they would actually release the information to the general public! Heck no, it would be a tatical advantage to them and would use it for their own advantage without giving a second though.

[ Parent ]
Re: Crime Watch (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by seppanen on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 09:47:44 AM EST

Actually Oracle didn't stand to gain any competitive business secrets from this investigation, because it was solely concerned with organizations that microsoft was funding to generate positive pr on microsofts behalf concerning the antitrust trial. These organizations were purely political and not in any way technical.

[ Parent ]
Re: Crime Watch and public service (4.50 / 2) (#25)
by Anonymous 242 on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 10:19:52 AM EST

If one assumes that it is highly likely that Microsoft is guilty of immoral and/or illegal activites, then it could very justly be considered public service to fund investigation into whether one's assumption is correct or not. And given that Microsoft has been caught sumbitting falsified evidence in a court of law, there is ample reason to conjecture that their lobbying efforts are not all on the up and up, hence funding an investigation to determine if Microsoft is engaged in illegal activities, especially when some of their activities have consequences on the US government, could be considered a public service.

I find this situation similiar to the guy who is the publisher of Hustler offering a cash bounty for anyone with hard evidence of Republican congressmen engaged in the same type of behavior that congress was considering impeaching Bill Clinton for.

[ Parent ]
It's a public service if... (none / 0) (#38)
by marlowe on Sun Jul 02, 2000 at 09:32:51 AM EST

Oracle releases what it finds to the public, or at least to the news media.

So let's wait and see if they do that.

--- A vacant engineer rides on a train of thought that will not take him home ---
-- The Americans are the Jews of the 21st century. Only we won't go as quietly to the gas chambers. --
[ Parent ]
Bigger Issues (3.50 / 8) (#10)
by baka_boy on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 03:47:48 PM EST

-- begin rant mode -- It seems to me that there are two basic issues being discussed as though they were interchangeable here: corporate espionage, and anti-competitive practices. Of course, most large businesses will investigate (sometimes thoroughly) their competitors, even with the goal of finding comprimising information. This is no different from the actions of police departments, political candidates, etc., and while it may be somewhat distasteful to some of us, it is (in most cases, anyway) only information-gathering.

How that information is applied is a completely different matter; in this case, one large organization investigated another with the hopes of finding 'dirt' that could be used to further the government's case against them. Once again, somewhat distasteful perhaps, but not especially immoral, and certainly not illegal.

Microsoft's actions against Netscape were aggressive, bullying, and possible only because of their monopoly position. Anyone can hire an investigator to gather intelligence on business rivals, personal enemies, etc. Very few entities (read: international monopolistic corporations, governments, etc.) have the power and influence to directly intimidate their own partners into drastic courses of action designed to cripple another powerful entity.

Of course, Microsoft has some rights. Remember, though, that even the largest, richest corporation in the world is still not a person! It does not have any rights save those granted it by popular government. Unfortunately, in this age of the DMCA, patent and copyright rediculousness, and hands-off business regulation (read: right-wing majority in Congress, money-crazed middle and upper-classes) little is done relfecting that fact.

I personally think that any corporation as large and powerful as Microsoft should be subject to the same rules of disclosure and limitations that any democratic government must follow. Their day-to-day operations have as much (or more) effect on the world economy as major policy decisions, and their workforce (legally bound to them much like citizens) is the larger than a good many sovereign nations. Sorry, I'm all done now. Really, I feel much better now. -- end rant mode --

Re: Bigger Issues (1.50 / 2) (#11)
by Alhazred on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 04:40:48 PM EST

I don't think that really qualified as a rant. If it IS one then your exceptionally thoughtful. hehe. Seems like these issues hardly ever get raised in all these debates.

One thing one CAN say however about rights is that while a corporation may not be a person, and thus has no INHERENT rights, the people that make it up have rights, and thus any restriction you put on the corporation translates into some sort of regulation of the people that own it and work for it too, so its not 100% clear that corporations ought not to be allowed to exercise this or that right. Certainly though there is a great difference between people and companies.

As for Larry Ellison... I think my only comment is that he's neither better nor worse than Bill Gates IMHO. Oracle would happily build an empire of the same scale and probably generally similar in behaviour and methods.

I guess I find the whole thing somewhat amusing. I can't get all broken up with sorrow over multi-billionaires infighting.
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.
[ Parent ]
Re: Bigger Issues (5.00 / 1) (#17)
by Div0 on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 05:49:50 AM EST

Yes the people that make up the company have rights. But they also have legal and moral
restrictions imposed upon them, and all too often people in big companys will make amoral
and sometimes even illegal decisions and justify these decisions to themselves by considering
it a company action. This is clearly wrong and I belive that there should be more personal
accountability for these things.

If you go a dump a few hundred tons of highly toxic waste, even if you are 'only following
orders' I think you should be personnally prosecuted as well as the company. Just because
you are an employee, it doesn't give you right to disregard the law.

-- nothing funny here.
[ Parent ]
Re: Bigger Issues (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by baka_boy on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 11:59:13 AM EST

The problem is that the only people protected when, say, a corporation is granted a patent, are the shareholders. They are the primary beneficiaries of any public business's successes, but suffer no risks greater than the employees.

Current business law just validates the modern capitalist/popular economics premise that everything can and should be expressed as, converted to, and maximized in term of monetary value. A public corporation's one eternal creed is to maximize shareholder wealth.

Ethics, respect for your employees and society as a whole, etc. are considered necessary only as a means of maintaining that economic engine. Why else would corporations do business with sweatshops, move to areas with looser tax laws, or force employees to sign NDA's and exclusivity contracts?

Of course, it could be worse: at least American employees are allowed (and perhaps even expected) to jump ship if things aren't to their liking. As a contrast, the Japanese tradition of lifetime employment springs to mind.

[ Parent ]

Arrogance (3.00 / 4) (#12)
by Tin-Man on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 05:55:28 PM EST

It is pretty arrogant of Larry Ellison to say that he was performing a public service with his investigation. The arrogance is pretty deep-rooted, from what I have seen come from Oracle in the past.

However, the article takes the wrong angle on this story. Why should Larry have to defend the actions of his company? There is nothing illegal about hiring an investigative firm. Why is Larry in the spotlight for this?

There should be no need to excuse their actions because of some action by Microsoft, or anybody else. The software business is a tough world, and any (legal) advantage you can gain over your competitors is a welcome one.

So while I think it is pretty arrogant for Oracle to defend itself with a tit-for-tat excuse, I think the real question is: why is hiring an investigative firm such an inflammatory action?
The future sure isn't what it used to be!

Absolute justice? (3.60 / 5) (#13)
by Tatarigami on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 05:56:44 PM EST

I'm a great believer in absolutes. That's why I'm going to take the moral high ground and suggest that although Microsoft are clearly the devil's agents on Earth, that doesn't justify Oracle's actions.

Spying is wrong. I'm sorry if that sounds a bit naive, but there you have it. In war time, spys can be shot without trial, and in this age of increasing concern over who has access to what information, no-one is suggesting it's becoming less of an issue.

Even if companies don't have the same rights as individuals, it's still an individual or a group of them making the decision to use these tactics. And when you say it's good business practice, keep in mind that John Q Public is still wondering why geeks hate M$ so much when all they did was follow a good set of business practices of their own.

While I'm on the subject of absolutes, it's another article of faith for me that absolute government corrupts absolutely. I'm inclined to look at the anti-trust lawsuit as a necessary evil, and one of my grudges against Bill Gates is that he brought it to this. Now the American DoJ has tasted blood, I can't see them backing off from the IT industry, so the last thing we need is anyone else giving them an excuse...

So why is spying wrong exactly? (1.00 / 1) (#19)
by marlowe on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 08:06:22 AM EST

Oh, I get it. Spying is only wrong if the other side does it. Then you can shoot `em.

--- A vacant engineer rides on a train of thought that will not take him home ---
-- The Americans are the Jews of the 21st century. Only we won't go as quietly to the gas chambers. --
[ Parent ]
more than one type of spying (4.00 / 2) (#23)
by Anonymous 242 on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 10:11:15 AM EST

The bulk of spying consists of going through publicly available documents and using them to figure out something that the 'other side' doesn't want you to know about. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of spying. Going through a competitor's trash cans would seem to fall into this catagory (though perhaps not attempting to bribe the janitorial staff).

There is another type of spying that involves lying, stealing confidential information and possibly killing people and this type of spying is morally wrong from the perspective of most people that follow some sort of system of morals (the obvious exception would be those who base their morality on utility). Unfortunatly, it just so happens that a good number of people are, at their core, utilitarian in their morals. The James Bonds of the world are made into heros being theives, liars (and in Bond's case, womanizers) and murderers. This transformation from moral imbecile to hero takes place because so many people believe that the ends can justify the means, and for this reason the Aldrige Ames and Algar Hisses of the US are demonized into villians for being traitors (although neither did anything that James Bond hasn't done). Because the actions of Ames and Hiss defeat the 'greater goal' of the people in the US, they are condemned as villians by a populace that has a utilitarian ethos at its heart.

This is the same reason that the US leaves out how the Patriot army would confiscate property from those loyal to Britain during the revolutionary war, and how the colonial governments would sentence people who refused to fight in the Patriot army to prison (or in some cases to be executed).

I'm not one to have a utilitarian view of morality, so I view all of this behavior with some level of disgust.

[ Parent ]
Microsoft's chickens coming home to roost (3.00 / 8) (#14)
by Anonymous Zero on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 06:29:43 PM EST

Two wrongs don't make a right, but when a career car thief cries about his car being stolen it's hard to have any pity for him. The chickens are coming home to roost. I'm sorry but I find it hard to feel bad for Microsoft in this situation. The offices that were snooped on by Oracle were blatant political fronts for Microsoft's congressional astroturfing.

If Oracle denied, denied, denied then was proven to be lying then it would be a PR disaster for them, but I think Oracle did the smart thing (notice I didn't say the "right thing" implying that they were morally excusable) so they came clean early thus limiting the embarassment. In fact I give Larry Ellison bonus points for having the balls to confess that he was personally aware of this, whereas most other CEO's would hide behind a smokescreen of evasiveness and the usual "I'm not aware of every little thing that goes on in my company" bullsh*t excuses.

Re: Microsoft's chickens coming home to roost (3.00 / 3) (#15)
by Anonymous Hero on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 06:39:13 PM EST

I like your reasoning, but could you have done so without so many cliches? :)

[ Parent ]
More on rooting through rubbish (3.33 / 3) (#18)
by squigly on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 06:07:07 AM EST

This register article mentions that Larry Elison has invited Microsoft to do the same with their rubbish. Theres also This one which draws parallels with Bill Gates' comments about searching through the rubbish of computer firms and stealing source code from them.

Of course, if you're going to offer someone access to something, you can be pretty certain that there's nothing incriminating there. It is possible that Elison had some reason to believe that there might be a document entitled "How to destroy Oracle using our monopolistic position". I find it hard to believe that anything that was legal and honest would have been ignored though if it could have given Oracle a tactical advantage.

People who sig other people have nothing intelligent to say for themselves - anonimouse
Did I miss something? (3.25 / 4) (#24)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 10:14:09 AM EST

Specifically, did I miss the ceremony where Larry Ellison was appointed "Supreme Guardian of the Software Industry and All Humankind"?

Because if I *did* miss it, then I suppose it IS a public service-- after all, it's being done by the man who is supposed to protect us from big, evil Microsoft.

But if there really WASN'T such a ceremony, and Larry Ellison did this as a business decision, then I'd have to say Oracle has a lower standard of ethics than even Microsoft. I tend to think that marketing tactics, no matter how aggressive they may seem, are still more ethical than ESPIONAGE.

Yeah, maybe it was only a few Private Investigators that walked around the Microsoft campus. Or maybe that's simply all Larry is willing to ADMIT to. Either way, he sunk lower than Microsoft did.

Re: Did I miss something? (4.00 / 2) (#34)
by Danse on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 03:20:03 PM EST

Either way, he sunk lower than Microsoft did.

How so? By hiring someone to determine whether these organizations that claim to be independent truly are? If they didn't break the law, then I think what they did was fine. Microsoft has done much worse in its time, including breaking the law on numerous occaisions. I don't see how this could be worse.

An honest debate between Bush and Kerry
[ Parent ]
How many shades of grey can we find? (4.33 / 3) (#26)
by Rasputin on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 10:35:02 AM EST

I think I have to agree that Oracle's actions do not qualify as a public service, if only because the motivation was political/corporate. That said, it certainly falls into the area of "acceptable" corporate behaviour, by current standards.

His motivation was unquestionably to defend his company from losing ground to MS products that compete with Oracle's and possibly give his products an advantage. Increasing Oracle's revenue is not a public service until everybody is given shares ;)

I would also suspect if he found anything that would have had a major impact on the DOJ's case, he would have sent it to them and they would potentially have used it. Again, I would have trouble believing any motivation that included altruism was a factor. Oracle stands to gain from MS' troubles and the bigger those troubles, the more Oracle can gain. I happen to believe that why you did something is more important than what you did. And facile justifications don't cut it in my world ;) Ellison's motivation was personal gain, not the public good, so his actions cannot (IMNSHO) qualify as a public service.

On the subject of actions against MS being justified, I would say that MS' relative quality of evil has no bearing on it (especially since I don't believe in evil ;). Assuming the investigators stayed to legal techniques, this would be a non-issue. If they broke laws during the investigation, they should be hammered.
Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

Roll over and play dead. (1.50 / 2) (#28)
by 3than on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 11:38:48 AM EST

It's just business, folks. Never expect anything else from a crazy-big corporation like that.
I don't have a problem with it, however. Oracle simply isn't going to let MS steamroll over them like so many other companies...they know that they have a superior product, and they're going to do what it takes to stay that way. In light of what MS does, I have to say that Oracle is probably merely taking steps to ensure normal competition.
I'm just going to ignore any 'public-service' element and assume that Oracle is a big, giant, evil company that might do the same if they were in MS's position. But I'm going to hope that's not the case, that Oracle wants to be a good community player. But this isn't the way for them to do that.

If corporate spying is so rare (3.00 / 2) (#29)
by error 404 on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 11:41:51 AM EST

and unusual and reprehensible, why is there a shredder next to the copier down the hall?

Now, I'm not at all impressed with the "public service" claims. This is a business matter, and intended to boost either Oracle's bottom line or Ellison's ego.

But Microsoft boasts of playing hardball business, and that puts them in an arena where anything the law will allow is fair game. What I'm saying here is very different from two wrongs making a right. I'm not referring to bad things Microsoft may have done, I'm referring to statements they have made when people complained. They claim to like playing the game rough. Oracle takes them at their word. I don't have a problem with that.

It isn't that Microsoft deserves it. It's that when the game is played the way Microsoft likes it, these things happen. If you don't want to get tackled, don't go out on the field, tackle somebody, and then say "this isn't touch football".
Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

Public Flexing & Larry's Sex Problems (1.50 / 2) (#31)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 12:34:18 PM EST

Larry hates Bill with a passion. Why? They are not even in the same market space. The only reason I can come up with is that it's simply jealousy. Perhaps it's because he can't get laid. Larry's got enough problems of his own. I think he gets slapped with a new sexual harassment lawsuit about ever other week. Why don't we ever hear about that? It's public record.

Re: Public Flexing & Larry's Sex Problems (3.50 / 2) (#33)
by mr on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 03:12:58 PM EST

Funny, I thought Backoffice and Microsoft SQL server is compared by Micorsoft to Oracle ALL the time.

Perhaps you are thinking about how the programs actually preform, or cost. Oracle has a better track record WRT bugs than Microsoft, and Oracle has always been more costly than Microsoft, thus one could claim "they are not even in the same market space"

[ Parent ]
Re: Public Flexing & Larry's Sex Problems (2.00 / 2) (#36)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 11:14:49 PM EST

I think if you look at what MS makes money selling (Operating Systems, thier Office suite, etc. for mostly Intel architecture) and what Oracle makes money selling (Database software for unix and Intel arch), I think you will find two different companys.

MSSQL and Oracle aren't even in the same league with each other. You ever install MSSQL on a unix machine? 'nuff said.

[ Parent ]
Re: Oracle vs. SQLServer pricing (none / 0) (#37)
by Anonymous Hero on Sat Jul 01, 2000 at 10:10:40 AM EST

Actually, at the low end (typically SQLServer's stronghold) Oracle is now offering pretty reasonable prices (at least that's the way it seemed in the latest Programmer's Paradise catalog). Oracle's just gone with a pretty arcane pricing model though (based on CPU "power"), so it's getting harder to tell.

[ Parent ]
Spying (2.50 / 2) (#32)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 01:36:29 PM EST

Hiring a company to dumpster dive is not truly on a level with suborning foreign nationals into treasonous behaviour, nor does it have the same consequences. What's the surprise here? Where's the evil? It's trash. No worse than opening a Word.doc to see archival saves.

Stop Big Brother and Dumpster Divers (3.50 / 2) (#35)
by cable on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 04:31:25 PM EST

We shread our papers before we throw them away. Nothing like someone doing some dumpster diving and getting our account numbers, client information, finacial statements, and/or other stuff. We use PGP to send encrypted e-mail and encrypt files. Why don't the big companies do what the smaller ones like mine do?

Only you, can help prevent Neb Rage!
Spying on Microsoft: Arrogance or Public Service? | 38 comments (28 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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