While struggling through a botched response to the Ebola crisis at home, grappling with a destabilizing global power-shift created by the unchecked ascendance of Putin in Eastern Europe, and the terrifying proliferation of ISIS across the Middle East – Obama took to his bully pulpit to speak out on one of the “biggest problems” being targeted by his administration: patent reform.
Belying the administration’s false sense of urgency on the matter is the vacancy--for nearly two years--of a permanent director to head the scandal laden U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But in a little noticed move last Thursday, Obama announced that he was tapping Michelle Lee, a former Google patent attorney, to head the agency.
Google is getting increasingly cozy with Washington’s power circles, not just through political contributions (Google employees reportedly contributed about $800,000 to each of Obama’s campaigns), but through an extensive network of political appointees as well.
Lee’s nomination is just the latest in a long line of key officials who have traveled through the revolving door, making Google the Halliburton of the Obama Administration. Megan Smith, a former vice president at the company, was recently named as the country’s chief technology officer; Alex Macgillivray, who worked as a Google attorney, now handles Internet policy at the White House; and one of their predecessors, Andrew McLaughlin, spent five and a half years at Google as director of global public policy and government affairs.
In the words of Politico, Obama has “plundered the search giant’s ranks,” cementing a level of influence that leaves “no denying the door is swinging favorably toward Google these days.”
This disproportionate Washington influence is troubling, especially given the degree to which it has been leveraged toward advancing policies that directly benefit Google, at the expense of competing tech companies.
Google's actions in other areas indicate that the company is more interested in diluting patent law than reforming it. For one, they had no qualms about violating copyright law with their Google Books project, in which they made millions of copyrighted books searchable online. When authors sued, the case inevitably fell Google's way, and few have since bothered to question Google's use of copyrighted works.
Also significant is Google's obsessive, ever-increasing acquisition of patents. Last year Google landed 1,851 patents, a 60 percent increase from the year before and more than Apple. For some perspective, compare that to 2003, when Google was awarded just four patents. With a former executive poised to become head of the patent office, is it any wonder Google sees an opportunity to get a leg up in the patent war, and all under the PR-friendly guise of "reform"?
No doubt there is a need for common sense patent reform, but that’s not what Google or the administration is truly seeking, despite their misleading rhetoric. The push for reform is just the Obama administration's latest in a long line of government takeovers, where the cure is worse than the disease. Patent reform is needed to tweak the system, but a widespread takeover of the system--like we saw with the Affordable Care Act and healthcare, Dodd Frank and banking, or the current FCC moves to reclassify broadband under Title II--are an unnecessary reach that grossly extend beyond the common sense reforms that are needed.
America is the number one innovator in the world, but the Obama administration's pursuits could threaten the protections that allow our companies to succeed. Weakening our patent regime will make it easier for emerging economies--like China and India--to steal our innovative breakthroughs and eclipse our economic standing.
The Obama administration has demonstrated a regulatory zeal that has handicap competing tech companies, while selectively administering other rules to let Google off the hook. Last year, for example, the Federal Trade Commission sent letters to the major search engines telling them to make advertisements clearly distinguishable from search results. So far Google has not complied, but the FTC hasn't taken any punitive action. In fact, the administration has only become more friendly toward to Google in their unequivocal support for net neutrality. Now we're seeing it in patent reform.
The Obama administration's actions--or lack thereof--consistently and selectively benefit Google. Sadly, this has made cronyism a cornerstone of Google’s business strategy, relying on government putting their thumb on the scale to ensure that Google always wins.