Monopolize and manipulate. Those are the antitrust accusations and charges of privacy invasion, and even illegal conduct, being tossed at Google and Facebook by a group of state attorneys general, a coalition of newspaper publishers and members of Congress, all of whom want to bring the tech giants to heel in one way or another.
But a suit against Google and its subsidiary YouTube by a Seattle-based firm whose business includes managing receiverships may prove equally interesting to watch as it unfolds.
And now add the suit filed Monday by Washington Atty. Gen. Robert Ferguson and attorneys general from three other states focusing on Google’s collection of local data that can be used to target advertising as well as build internet-user profiles, even those users who had acted on Google’s agreement to let them opt-out. Ferguson said, bluntly, Google’s conduct “is not only dishonest, but it’s also unlawful.”
The suit by Revitalization Partners, likely the first of its kind by a court-appointed receiver, alleges Google and YouTube infringed on a trio of patents held by a Bellevue-based company named AudienceScience Inc., which actually went out of business five years ago.
Revitalization Partners’ co-founder and principal Al Davis said his firm discovered more than 30 AudienceScience patents after being appointed by the court to manage the receivership process, which involves finding the best solution for the highest possible return for creditors.
A determination of patent infringement would likely mean financial penalties for Google and YouTube, though Revitalization Partners’ suit does not include a request for a specific dollar judgment.
But Ferguson’s suit specifically asks that Google be ordered to disclose the profits it made from using the tactics alleged and give it all back as well as pay a $7,500 fee for each violation. That would mean uncovering Google’s profits from the activity.
Davis noted that AudienceScience invented and patented many of the “foundational technologies” used across the digital advertising industry today, including the industry’s first of what are called “behavioral targeting products.” That means targeting advertising based on both user history and page views.
AudienceScience was a Bellevue company known for building software and tools designed to help major marketers buy digital ads programmatically, using a combination of automation and data. It closed its doors after it lost its long-time client Procter & Gamble.
“Now that we’ve received the necessary approvals from the Washington State receivership court to pursue litigation, we are in a position to execute and potentially recover a significant amount of value for creditors using these and other patents,” Davis said.
If you’ve ever had the sense akin to something like catching someone peeking in your bedroom window when, for example, ads for various San Diego hotels suddenly appear on your desktop after you’ve been looking up the website of a hotel in that city, you’ll understand what technology of user information to empower advertisers is all about. And why the effort to control it as an example of privacy invasion is beginning to attract such attention at the highest levels.
And how much the major tech companies have made off of providing information to advertisers on where visitors to the internet seek information, should that sort of financial information ever be ferreted out, could prove interesting to the attorneys general, publishers, and Congress in determining actions to impose limits on the activities of the tech giants.
Ferguson’s suit seeking specific profit information would be a key step in determining that information on the riches gleaned by actions increasingly viewed as privacy invasion and patent infringement.
According to material unveiled in the past few days in the case brought in Texas by the coalition of attorneys general, Google manipulated the system of buying and selling online display ads and deceived advertisers. Google dominates the online system for buying and selling online display ads.
If courts affirm such manipulation charges, it would mean more than just other media entities seeking to have their ads reach consumers were harmed but also consumers in general since such action inevitably leads to fewer product choices.
In fact, the Revitalization Partners suit against Google and YouTube isn’t the first on behalf of a small tech firm alleging Google infringed on its patents.
Coincidentally, another former Bellevue company named VoIP-Pal.com Inc. has over the past few years filed suits against Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other major tech companies alleging violation of the patents it holds on what’s known as Voice-over-Internet Protocol.
VoIP-Pal is a publicly-traded corporation that is actually a penny stock (hovering at a few cents a share) because it has never been able to monetize the technology of its patents and likely won’t unless the courts order the big tech companies to pay for using what VoIP-Pal contends it holds the patents for. It owns a portfolio of such patents.
For example, VoIP-Pal contends Amazon’s Alexa calling and messaging service uses VoIP-Pal’s patented technologies to direct voice and video calls and messages is an infringement on one of its patents. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how much revenue would flow to VoIP-Pal from a court decision requiring Amazon to pay VoIP-Pal for Alexa’s technology.
The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, after several years of deliberation, approved all the patents for the various technologies in the company’s portfolio and the entity known as the Patent Trials and Appeals Board, in an unusual decision favoring the “little guy,” rejected the challenges by the big tech companies to the validity of VoIP-Pal patents.
Observers of these types of litigations relating to patent infringement actions against the major tech firms know there’s a quiet desire not to have a suit by a small firm come before one of the Silicon Valley Federal judges.
But the federal judge in West Texas has a track record of the ruling, in patent infringement cases, in favor of the patent holder. VoIP-Pal recently moved its corporate headquarters to Waco, TX.