When Larry Ellison pledged $1 billion to back Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, Musk got more than just another investor: He also gained a powerful political ally, with ties to the MAGA right and a history of backing the “anti-conservative bias” movement.
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Behind the scenes, Oracle, which Ellison founded and oversees as chairman of its board of directors, has been engaged in a sprawling anti-Big Tech lobbying campaign, including funding a dark money group that presents itself as a conservative advocate against online censorship. Oracle targeted companies such as Google and Amazon with concerns about free speech and policy issues, like antitrust, in an apparent attempt to gain leverage over its competitors in Washington, interviews and records show.
Ellison and his company — once viewed as largely apolitical — aligned closely with Donald Trump when he was president. Ellison hosted Trump for a major fundraiser at his $43 million estate in California and helped broker a deal for the White House to use Oracle software to study hydroxychloroquine, once seen by Trump and some other Republicans as a potential covid treatment.
The dark money group, called the Internet Accountability Project (IAP), is headed by former Capitol Hill aide Mike Davis, who was instrumental in getting close to 300 Trump judges confirmed, including current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as aide to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Davis, who left Capitol Hill in 2019, now frequently lambastes Oracle’s competition on Twitter — but does not mention his group’s affiliation with the company.
At an event last year at the tony Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., Davis gave a speech describing a “free speech crisis” facing America.
“Too many Americans are scared to express their personal views for fear of getting ridiculed, censored, silenced, deplatformed, fired and even canceled,” Davis said. “Today’s biggest proponents, enablers and enforcers of censorship and cancel culture are the trillion-dollar Big Tech monopolists: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple — along with their little brother, Twitter.”
Many conservatives genuinely believe that social media is unfairly targeting them. But Oracle’s big-money conservative campaign against content moderation shows it can also be part of a business strategy.
And it suggests that, while most social media companies attempt to moderate user-generated content and even deplatform users who make harmful posts, one of Musk’s largest backers appears to think as Musk does: Let’s not.
Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” has a long-standing relationship with Ellison, who has referred to Musk as a “very close” friend and joined Tesla’s board in 2018. Together, the pair represent the rare Silicon Valley billionaire founders who exhibit common cause with the MAGA right.
“I think Oracle is a great company,” Trump said in 2020. “And I think its owner is a tremendous guy.”
Oracle and Ellison embrace Trump
George Polisner, onetime director for Oracle’s cloud business, was disturbed by the company’s rightward lurch. “I don’t think there’s anything unusual for Oracle providing money to people to further their efforts,” he told Grid. “The place where I do see a difference is Oracle seems to be more involved in right-wing issues.”
Before Trump was elected, Oracle and its executives weren’t viewed as Republican-leaning. Oracle’s political action committee had previously given money to both parties over the years, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data, and Glueck was a former aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat. Ellison personally has donated exclusively to Republicans since 2017, including donations totaling $25 million to a PAC supporting Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) last year.
Oracle’s near-instant embrace of the Trump administration, even at its most extreme, helped it transform into one the most consequential corporations in Trump’s Washington.
The red brick town house, owned by an Oracle executive and used as a corporate hub in Washington, has been used by both Republicans and Democrats for fundraisers in recent years, according to FEC records. It is just one piece of Oracle’s sprawling Washington operation. It also includes donations to political groups like Davis’ IAP and the Federalist Society — between $7 million and $21 million since 2019 to dozens of organizations, according to company reports. And the company’s network includes dozens of well-connected lobbyists across multiple firms, filings show. Nearly 60 of Oracle’s lobbyists are Washington insiders who previously served in government, according to the nonpartisan group OpenSecrets.
Rivalries and aggression
The anti-Big Tech rhetoric dominating Washington today echoes years of aggression from Oracle toward technology companies it has considered rivals.
In 2010, Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, the creator of a software platform called Java. Java includes pre-written code that Google had used in its Android platform. Soon after the purchase, Oracle sued Google over its use of the code, sparking a decadelong lawsuit that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
Antitrust and platform regulation are hot topics in Washington, and acute sensitivities for Google, Facebook and other tech giants. They are also areas that are not priorities for Oracle, which primarily works in cloud computing and software for corporations. Oracle did not respond to questions from Grid about its lobbying in Washington or the political activity of Oracle executives.
Walker approached Catz and told her that “Google’s a really special company, and the old rules don’t apply to us,” Catz testified. “I immediately said, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ It’s an oldie but a goodie.”
The right’s anti-censorship crusaders
Davis formed IAP as a 501c4 political organization. Those are known by critics as “dark money” groups because they aren’t required to disclose their donors. Davis and his colleagues have hewed closely to that.
Much like Oracle’s advocacy against Microsoft two decades earlier, IAP champions issues that stand to hurt competitors to Oracle yet have little relevance to Oracle’s business.
Another group that has received funding from Oracle, the American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF), also filed a brief supporting Oracle in the case. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) flagged the filings in a Senate hearing, accusing the groups of “flying false flags, not revealing whose interests they’re really there to support.” Asked about the brief, ACUF spokesman Allen Fuller said the organization does not “discuss donors or donations” and directed Grid to a previous statement that said ACUF had established a center on intellectual property, and “did so, without any funding or promise of funding, because we understood that property rights — especially intellectual property rights — were under assault.”
Last year, Davis appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program to discuss a report put out by New York University about bias in social media. Carlson claimed the report was “fraudulent” because it used data from technology companies and received funding from a tech billionaire, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.
“The study relies on Twitter, Google and Facebook employees to find out whether there’s conservative censorship. The people they’re not asking about conservative censorship are conservatives,” Davis said. “And so of course, they didn’t find any censorship just like the tobacco companies didn’t find any problems with tobacco and kids.”
IAP received somewhere between $150,000 and $700,000 from Oracle since 2018, according to Oracle, and its support appears to be increasing over time. Oracle reported funding for IAP was less than $100,000 in 2018, while in 2021 it reported giving the group between $100,000 and $499,999.
In tax documents for 2019, the year Davis started IAP, the organization said it had $90,000 in revenue but only one donation — indicating Oracle was its largest, and possibly only, funder. Similar disclosures are not yet available for 2020 or 2021, when IAP has done the majority of its work.
Oracle discloses its support of IAP and other political groups in relatively obscure annual reports, opting to report those donations in ranges instead of specific figures. Beyond Oracle’s reports, little is known about how much money IAP has received or whether Oracle is the group’s sole funder.
Davis and Oracle did not respond to questions about the relationship between Oracle and IAP, and whether Oracle was the only funder of IAP.
The third group led by Davis and colleagues, Unsilenced Majority, is devoted to opposing cancel culture.
Neither the Article III Project nor Unsilenced Majority have disclosed their donors, and Oracle has not disclosed giving money to either group. Tax filings for the Concord Fund (previously Judicial Crisis Network), a right-wing group that advocates for conservative judiciary appointments, show it has sent tens of thousands in support to Davis’ Article III Project.
Davis and colleagues are frequent users of Twitter while being critics of the company’s attempts to moderate content on its platform. Davis frequently retweets right-wing celebrities like Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. After Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race, Davis posted blunt, violent rhetoric, addressing the state’s Republicans: “You’ve finally been handed power again. Use it. Hunt them down and destroy them.”
“Foolish in the extreme”
One of the most controversial moderation choices by Twitter was the permanent ban of Trump immediately following Jan. 6, 2021. Last week, Musk said he would moderate some things on Twitter — like speech that is “destructive to the world” — but committed to overturn the ban on Trump. “I think it was a morally bad decision and foolish in the extreme,” Musk said. (Ellison, who joined Twitter in 2012, has tweeted only once.)
Musk, one of the most popular people on Twitter, also said he would improve the company by ridding it of liberal bias.
“I think Twitter needs to be much more evenhanded. It currently has a strong left bias because it’s based in San Francisco,” Musk said. “From their perspective it seems moderate, but they’re just coming after it from an environment that is very far left.”
Oracle’s political aggressiveness may help explain why Ellison is prepared to pour $1 billion into Twitter: Musk’s version of the platform would tip the scales in favor of his political allies on one of the most influential social media platforms in the world.
If that happens, it will likely deepen calls for regulating social media platforms. Not unlike Oracle’s ill-advised “investigative” efforts against Microsoft 20 years ago, co-owning Twitter could become a bigger headache to Ellison than to those he may be seeking to aggravate.
It’s much easier to talk about unmoderated free speech online than to run a company that embraces the practice. Mitch Stoltz, competition director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on internet civil liberties, noted that even Parler and Gab, sites founded as conservative alternatives to Twitter, did some content moderation.
“Both Musk and Ellison are going to be subject to the same constraints as far as content moderation,” said Stoltz. “If Twitter is going to remain a viable business, they’re going to have to do that.”
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