Feb 6, 2018 ยท 5 minutes

After almost a year of anticipation, the big legal fight between Google* and Uber finally found its way to a jury on Monday morning.

Judge William Alsup’s courtroom and an overflow room down the hall were packed to the limit with squads of dark-suited attorneys, trial consultants and flacks, shirtsleeved reporters from every outlet in the land, and a clammy atmosphere of anticipation.

And yet. After the full-throated roar of a year’s worth of reportage, analysis, speculation and the best public relations that money can buy, the opening day’s careful overtures to an impartial ten jurors landed with a whimper. 

Charles Verhoven: “Let me start by talking about Google, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of. It’s a classic Silicon Valley story…now they offer many things, search, maps, Youtube. All these services are free, all make us have a better life. My kids live on Youtube.”

The opening arguments presented the familiar outline of Google’s case – that, in 2016, Uber clandestinely acquired a raft of Google trade secrets associated with the latter’s robot car program by acquiring Otto, a vaporous startup founded by a former Google employee and thief named Anthony Levandowski.

Uber’s attorney – apparently handpicked to match the avuncular blandness of his Google counterpart – responded to Google’s outright allegation of conspiracy with a more subtle suggestion of counter-conspiracy: Google, realizing it was losing its edge in the self-driving car wars, plotted this lawsuit as an attempt to stem Uber’s magnificent momentum. The respective attorney’s well-pressed suits and bipedal aspect barely masked the impression of their clients as naughty monkeys flinging feces back and forth. 

Charles Verhoven: “These cars work better, save lives, reduce traffic congestion, people cut in and out of lanes and don’t know how to drive, these cars don’t do that….They offer new mobility options, say you have some high school kids, they can order a car to take them to school. People with disabilities, the elderly, they won’t have to call a daughter or son to take them to the grocery store.”

The meat of the case rests on whether the stuff Levandowski stole really amounted to trade secrets, and whether Uber actually used those secrets in the development of its self-driving car technology. In order to preserve the secrecy that Google asserts, all discussion of the details of what was taken and how it was used has to happen out of earshot of the press and public. So while the bulk of the attendees began the day light-years ahead of the jury in understanding the ins and outs of the case, by noon the jury knew more about it than the public likely ever will. That gap will only widen over the projected two week duration of the trial, as hearings alternate between between the closed and open formats.

In the open-to-the-public portion of the opening arguments, little new information surfaced. Google attorney Charles Verhoven spun a simple morality tale in which a mighty and honorable corporation is beset by the chicanery of a jealous rival and a disgruntled employee. He wisely chose to let former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s douchery speak for itself in recovered emails and internal company communications. Verhoven compared Uber to the infamous Boston Marathon cheat Rosie Ruiz. 

Travis Kalanick [from emails and texts presented as evidence]: 

-“I see this as a race and we need to win, second place is for loosers[sic].”

-“Top priority. Cheat codes, find them, use them.” 

-“What we want…all of their data/pound of flesh/road map/IP”

For his part, Uber attorney Bill Carmody’s resort to metaphor involved a comparison of Anthony Levandowski to the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant, a key free agent who completes an already stellar team. 

The courtrooms cleared for an hour as the secret case was presented. Reporters fired off recaps and shored up their live-tweets, while trial operatives spoke in hushed tones, and at least one  flack bragged audibly to a colleague about reducing a weekend Levandowski profile to “just a flesh wound.” Well-healed Silicon Valley types encountered the Federal Building’s cafeteria for the first time, and no doubt longed for return to unlimited free catering. 

After the break, Google called John Krafcik, the CEO of Waymo, who looks a bit like Ed Norton disguised as an affable psychoanalyst. Krafcik was presented as a responsible family man hell-bent on saving humanity from automotive accidents, leadership traits that chafed Levandowski’s “move fast and break shit” sensibilities. On cross examination, Uber’s Carmody attempted to show that Krafcik, Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and Google X head Astro Teller were direly concerned about Uber’s emerging self-driving car prowess and grasping to contain it. He also presented evidence to suggest Krafcik tried to gather intel on Levandowski’s activities after the latter’s abrupt departure from Waymo. 

The day ended with ten minutes of getting-to-know-you testimony from Dmitri Dolgov, a Waymo vice president of engineering. Dolgov’s testimony will continue today. 

In the early going, Google is embracing an Aesop’s fable approach, while Uber is tentatively valorizing its brashness while insisting that nothing really happened. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have each been mentioned once. After the proceedings wrapped up, the Google cohort left the premises in a caravan of matching black unmarked Cadillac Escalades, while the Uberists boarded a black “executive charter”. All vehicles were driven by human drivers. 

To be continued...


* In 2015 Google begat its own parent company, Alphabet. Its former self-driving car operation, till then known as Chaffeur and housed in the 'moonshot lab' known as Google X, was spun out as a Google sibling company called Waymo. Unless context demands differentiation, this and subsequent articles will refer to all these entities as 'Google'.