The judge in the long-running Oracle v. Google case - which hinges on whether Google's Android platform infringes on Oracle's Java-related patents - has threatened to shine a light on the murky practice of astroturfing, demanding that both parties reveal who they paid for positive coverage.
Astroturfing - named for the plastic grass substitute and a play on the concept of a grass-roots campaign organised by members of the public - is the name given to the shady act of paying people to say nice things about your company or product. In extreme cases, it can even take the form of paying people to say nasty things about your competitors.
The act of astroturfing is not to be confused with that of simple marketing: where you have a good idea that a celebrity appearing on TV to espouse the benefits of a MucRonald's burger has been paid to shill for the company, a successful astroturf campaign will seem like the tide of public opinion is in favour of the company or product - when that can be very much not the case.
Previously detected astroturfing campaigns include peripherals maker Belkin paying people to write five-star reviews for products they have not purchased or tried
in exchange for a massive 65¢ through Amazon's Mechanical Turk programme.
The case of Oracle v. Google, however, is significantly more concerning.
'The Court is concerned that the parties and or counsel herein may have retained or paid print or internet authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers who have and or may publish comments on the issues in this case,
' Judge William Alsup claimed in a ruling which requests both parties to admit to payments made in return for coverage supporting their individual viewpoint.
The ruling is likely a response to FOSS Patents head Florian Mueller who, while employed as a consultant by Oracle, posted opinion pieces on the case in support of his employer's case against Google - a position Mueller was clear about from the start
Judge Alsup's ruling suggests that others receiving money from Oracle or Google have been less clear about the potential conflict of interest inherent in their coverage. Oracle, for its part, claims that it has been open and honest about any payments made to bloggers or journalists - but suggests that Google has not been quite so transparent. 'Oracle has always disclosed all of its financial relationships in this matter, and it is time for Google to do the same,
' an Oracle spokesperson told The Verge
. 'We read this order to also include indirect payments to entities who, in turn, made comments on behalf of Google.
For those who call themselves journalists and yet accepted payments in secret in return for positive coverage, the following weeks could prove interesting - in the Chinese-proverb sense - indeed.