Monday, October 17, 2022

Clouded in secrecy: presumptively Amazon- and Google-backed U.S. lobbying front (Coalition for Fair Software Licensing) sets new opacity record by not listing any members

In the previous post I quoted from the official complaints of three Members of the European Parliament (all of them well-respected experts in technology policy-making) alleging violations of EU transparency rules by Google, Amazon, CCIA (an entity funded by them as well as by others, such as Apple), Meta, and four smaller lobbying fronts. There are strong indications that some of the same organizations--the ones whose names I just put in bold face--are also involved, in one form or another, with a dubious lobbying entity based in Washington, D.C., named "Coalition for Fair Software Licensing" (CFSL). That one was launched only a couple of weeks ago.

The extent of astroturfing by some Big Tech companies is as appalling as it is becoming absurd. I will call them out, relentlessly.

The CFSL was started to advocate in the U.S. nine of the ten principles for software licensing in the cloud that have previously been espoused by Amazon-backed CISPE in the EU. The primary targets of both CISPE and CFSL are Microsoft and Oracle. CISPE has been trying for a while to instigate an EU antitrust investigation against Microsoft, but the latter's new software licensing terms create new opportunities for the very type of company CISPE pretends to speak for: European cloud service providers (CSPs). I just emphasized the word "pretends" for a couple of reasons:

  • It's paradoxical that a group claiming to promote European digital sovereignty is primarily funded by Amazon, the biggest bully on the cloud services block. No company diminishes the business opportunity for European CSPs even half as much as Amazon does.

  • Benjamin Henrion, who was a key player in the fight against the EU software patents directive, drew my attention via Twitter to a recent event in Brussels where the CEO of a key complainant--Nextcloud--said (via video) that he didn't want to work out a solution when Microsoft contacted him: he prefers to keep fighting.

    If I were an antitrust enforcer, I'd be unprepared to investigate a complaint by someone with that attitude. There's nothing wrong with having a set of values, but regulation is more like litigation than like legislation in the sense that if someone has a problem and the problem can be solved, a settlement is preferable--also from a public-interest perspective--over an unnecessary dispute. Mr. Karlitschek's belligerence raises the question of whether he's actually complaining as the CEO of a German open source company or as a sock puppet for Amazon. By contrast, the CEO of Epic Games is very serious about opening up mobile app distribution, but last year he testified under oath that if Apple had offered him terms that Epic would have considered acceptable, he'd have accepted them (which doesn't mean giving up one's policy positions). A smaller app developer, Kosta Eleftheriou, settled his U.S. litigation with Apple last month (previously he fended off Apple's motion to dismiss), yet keeps criticizing Apple's App Store terms and practices. Those who truly face a problem will be open to working out a solution.

    It's also remarkable that Nextcloud's CEO claimed to know that the EU Commission would soon launch an investigation. Not only may DG COMP--which has to prioritize wisely--very well conclude that Microsoft's modified licensing terms satisfactorily address any potential concerns, but even if an investigation was imminent, the Commission would communicate it through other channels than having a complainant reveal its plans at a small conference.

    Interestingly, right after Nextcloud's Frank Karlitschek, Quentin Adam--the CEO of Clever Cloud-- raised some issues that small European CSPs are more concerned about, such as Google's advertising business (against which the EC is reportedly preparing a Statement of Objections) and Amazon's pricing model being allegedly designed to complicate multiclouding (combining services from multiple CSPs).

It really looks like some who complain about unfair software licensing terms would actually prefer to divert attention away from their own terms and practices, hoping to use the regulatory process to cement their own market position.

That newly-created Coalition for Fair Software Licensing has an "About the Coalition" page--but it doesn't list a single company. There's a CV of the organization's executive director, a former Senate aide and tech industry lobbyist (Ryan Triplette). But not a single company is named that would say it has problems with Microsoft's or Oracle's software licensing terms.

The Register reported on the CFSL's launch, and was told that "customers are concerned about speaking out publicly for fear of 'retaliatory behavior from software providers.'"

That is a serious allegation, but can it be taken seriously? A plausibility check is in order.

Why would any of those companies believe that the targets of their complaint would try to silence critics? And what do they believe would happen?

The Register continues: "Nobody wants the compliance team from Microsoft or Oracle knocking at the door."

Why would that be so much of a concern? If a company meets its obligations under a license agreement, it doesn't have to fear an audit. And even if it had anything to hide, what would the consequences be? Presumably they'd just have to pay the difference between what they reported before and what they were actually using the licensed software for. How is that retaliation by any reasonable standard?

A potential audit is not a reason to hide one's identity. If potential complainants have to be afraid of something, it's that gatekeepers abuse their power such as by rejecting apps or delaying reviews. It didn't prevent me from bringing formal complaints over Apple's and Google's COVID-related app rules. It's not preventing dozens of app makers, large and small, from being publicly listed as members of the Coalition for App Fairness.

I have heard from two major app makers (one very, very large company and a medium-sized European one) that they don't want to publicly complain over Apple's App Store rules. The larger one considers Apple's terms unreasonable, but at least they have dedicated contacts in Apple's App Review department (as did Epic Games until it threw down the gauntlet) that help them get updates reviewed quickly. They don't want to lose that privilege, so they hope others will do the job of bringing about change. The medium-sized one has some rather conservative shareholders who fear that Apple might make their company's products less discoverable. So, it is true that fear of retaliation sometimes does prevent companies from officially complaining. But fear of an audit--in other words, that you might just have to abide by a contract you signed--is not a credible reason, when some other companies even speak out publicly against tyrannical gatekeepers who have the power to arbitrarily prevent you from reaching billions of customers, or to make your life miserable in other ways.

Who is footing the Coalition for Fair Software Licensing's bills?

According to information they published on LinkedIn, they have 11-50 employees. That means a multi-million dollar budget. Where is the money coming from?

I have found two clues. The first one is so ridiculously hypocritical that it actually made me laugh (click on the image to enlarge):

There you have the so-called Computer & Communications Industry Association--which is actually, as I explained in a recent post, a Cash & Carry Industry Association--describing itself as a "longtime advocate for open systems and open networks." That's the same CCIA that supported its most influential member, Google, against the European Commission (fortunately the Commission has already prevailed twice in the EU General Court). It's also the same CCIA that is supporting Apple against Epic Games (the Ninth Circuit will hear Epic's appeal later this week). Presumably that's the #1 reason why Apple joined CCIA about a year ago.

CCIA doesn't give a damn about open systems and open networks or "competitive ideals." It's the enemy of open markets, of open systems, and of open networks. It's just a lobbying front for entrenched monopolists, and in the formal complaints I mentioned further above, three MEPs are accusing CCIA of having astroturfed for Google and Amazon: CCIA lobbied against legislation designed to open up markets and restore competition, and according to the complaints falsely claimed to do so on startups' behalf.

It's my sense of humor when a new lobbying entity springs up somewhere, claims to speak for a certain category of stakeholders it says are too afraid to reveal their identity (without any plausible reason why they'd have to be all that concerned)--and CCIA appears to have a hand in it. It reminds me of that Save Our Standards group that is also backed by CCIA (Despicably deceptive: Big Tech's Save Our Standards campaign presents small app developer as victim of standard-essential patent abuse though it NEVER had to license SEPs). Now all that's missing is ACT | The App(le) Association. But unlike CCIA backers Google and Amazon, Apple isn't in the CSP business.

While Google is not (at least not officially) involved with the CFSL's older European sister CISPE (unlike Amazon), it appears that Google is one of the backers of CFSL. On LinkedIn, Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi (title: U.S. Federal Civilian Policy - Google Cloud) endorsed and amplified the CFSL's first statement.

Google and Amazon trying to harm the third large CSP, but hiding behind unnamed customers.

That cast of characters says a lot.