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Oracle doesn't need Section 230 for any of its core services, but it knows that its rivals Google and Amazon do. So for years, the company has been working behind the scenes in Washington to gin up excitement around reforming the law and carving away at the protections it offers.
With its new proposed deal with TikTok, that Machiavellian plot changes overnight. Section 230 proponents are enjoying the irony and hoping that they've won a new ally in their fight just as Congress looks again at paring back the law.
"One of the things that I'm optimistic about is now that [Oracle] has potentially real skin in the game with respect to social media and online consumer-facing services, they will not only appreciate the necessity of Section 230, they'll become a strong defender of it," said Carl Szabo, the vice president and general counsel of tech trade group NetChoice, which counts TikTok as a member.
But Ken Glueck, Oracle's firebrand top lobbyist, tempered those expectations and played down Oracle's yearslong work on the issue. "Not sure 'agitating against Section 230' is an accurate description," Glueck said in an email to Protocol. "But, sure, we do believe 230 needs to be changed, and we've said that."
"That all said, this isn't something we work on day to day," Glueck added.
The frenzy around Section 230 has elevated importance right now as the Senate gets closer to taking up the controversial EARN IT Act, a bill intended to combat online child sexual exploitation by slimming down Section 230 protections for tech platforms. People involved in the talks around the EARN IT Act told Protocol that Oracle has been largely silent on the bill, and its lobbying records do not show any lobbying on the legislation so far.
"What is the EARN IT Act?" Glueck asked in the email.
But the EARN IT Act is the most serious threat to Section 230 since FOSTA-SESTA, a similar online sex trafficking law that was signed into law in 2017 to the chagrin of many online platforms. And Oracle played a vital role during the fight around FOSTA-SESTA as one of the only major tech companies supporting the legislation.
In September 2017, the authors of FOSTA-SESTA touted "support from tech giant Oracle for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" in a press release including Oracle's official letter in support of the law.
"Frankly, we are stunned you must even have this debate," Glueck wrote in the letter, which is a thinly veiled shot at Google, Amazon and Facebook. "Your legislation does not, as suggested by the bill's opponents, usher the end of the internet. If enacted, it will establish some measure of accountability for those that cynically sell advertising but are unprepared to help curtail sex trafficking."
Rick Lane, a former lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce and 21st Century Fox who has played a central role in advocating for Section 230 reform on Capitol Hill, said Oracle's voice, as well as IBM's, played an outsized role in pushing FOSTA-SESTA through to the finish line.
"I think as a major technology company, [Oracle's] voice was very important because it showed that there are tech companies that share the goals that we had, which was modifying [Section 230] to ensure for the safety and protection of the online users," Lane said.
Ultimately, FOSTA-SESTA passed following an intensive negotiating process with the top tech giants. But there are still bruises over Oracle's involvement.
One tech industry source who was involved in the FOSTA-SESTA negotiations said Oracle has been the prime example of "a company that doesn't rely on Section 230 for any business line, but they viewed it as something that would harm their competitors."
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute, put it more bluntly: "To the extent that Google values Section 230, Oracle opposes it; it's pretty much like a schoolyard-taunting type of game," he said.
Oracle's fight against Section 230 didn't end with FOSTA-SESTA. Oracle has lobbied directly to pull Section 230-like language out of trade agreements. And the company has funded a number of dark money groups that explicitly target Section 230, including the Google Transparency Report and, more recently, the Internet Accountability Project, a conservative group that advocates against the power of Big Tech. Oracle gave between $25,000 and $99,999 last year to the initiative, according to its own political activity report.
Oracle is IAP's only known funder, although the group says it receives money from multiple sources. Rachel Bovard, senior adviser for IAP and a longtime Capitol Hill aide, told Protocol that she'll continue advocating for Section 230 reform no matter what, but declined to comment on whether Oracle will change its position and what that could mean for IAP.
There are still many outstanding questions around how Oracle's partnership with TikTok is going to work, including the amount of responsibility that the cloud-computing giant will have for the app. And critics have pointed out that Oracle has deep ties to the Trump administration, throwing into question whether the entire deal has been tainted by politicized favoritism.
But TikTok is facing yet another significant obstacle as the Section 230 debate intensifies, and insiders will be watching to see whether Oracle goes to bat for its new asset or continues to crusade against its rivals.
"As Oracle moves into the realm of content moderation, removing election interference or hate speech, they will quickly appreciate that it is Section 230 that allows them to keep TikTok as the kind of platform that its users have come to expect," said Szabo.
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Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.