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Who Will Cast Judgement as Uber & Waymo Do Battle?

By: Bridget Clerkin September 29, 2017
Meet the San Francisco-based judge set to preside over next month's lawsuit between self-driving firms Waymo and Uber.

Football season has just begun, but the Silicon Valley Super Bowl is already ramping up.

In December, cross-town rivals Waymo (a Google sister company) and Uber will go toe to toe in a $1.86 billion battle for self-driving supremacy.

At stake, aside from the staggering sum, is nothing less than the rights to so-called “trade secrets” that could help either company pull ahead in the race to produce the first commercially-viable autonomous vehicle—and the outsized pride that comes from winning such an epic engagement.

With so much on the line, it’s crucial to ensure everyone plays by the rules—and the man in charge of refereeing this Big Game isn’t pulling any punches, already showing the willingness to call out both sides for trying to unfairly play their advantage.

But just like in football, those rulings could have a huge effect on the fight, impacting the stamina and strategy of a given side in the legal showdown.

So who, exactly, is the man behind the robe in the tech world’s trial of the decade?

William Alsup District Judge
William Alsup, a federal judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, is notoriously well-prepared for cases involving tech.

His name is William Haskell Alsup, U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

A Jackson, Mississippi native, Alsup, 71, stuck around the Magnolia State long enough to graduate from college there, finishing undergrad at Mississippi State University in 1967.

Soon after commencement, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, graduating from the prestigious institution in 1971 before serving a year-long term clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Once his tenure ended, Alsup turned his attentions west, working for a private practice in San Francisco before being named Assistant to the United States Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice, a position he served in from 1972 to 1978.

After returning to private practice for nearly two decades, President Bill Clinton appointed Alsup to his current position in the summer of 1999.

In the 18 years since, he’s gained a reputation as a diligent judge known to work harder than the lawyers appearing before him to understand the ins and outs of a case. (He apparently also loves to go backpacking.)

In such a potentially complicated technical case, that assiduous approach could prove invaluable in ensuring justice is delivered—but it’s not the first time the judge has had to wrap his head around technological issues, nor the first time he’s sat in on a case involving Google.

Not His First Rodeo

The year was 2012, and at least one Silicon Valley giant may have found themselves agreeing with the Mayan doomsday predictions.

Software behemoth Oracle found itself in the spring of that year grappling with Google in a nasty legal battle over several copyright and patent claims related to Google’s Android operating system. Judge Alsup presided over the legal showdown.

Exceptionally technical in nature, the crux of the case involved the use of APIs, short for “application programming interfaces,” which essentially act as the building blocks of programming, serving to define the ways in which various software components communicate with each other.

To better prepare himself for judging the fight, dubbed “the first of the smart phone wars,” famously-prepared Judge Alsup taught himself to read Java. He also split the case into several parts: copyrights, patents, and damages.

After hearing the evidence, Alsup sided with Google, and declared the damages owed were just a few lines of code—and zero dollars.

His opinion is still being contested today. (Oracle has appealed the case several times, asking for as much as $9 billion in damages.)

But will his second time overseeing a Google-related case turn out differently?

Calling the Shots

Alsup has wasted no time making his voice heard in the lead-up to the case, already calling out Waymo and its parent company, Alphabet, for not finding the time for the trial.

“You go back and tell that guy he better show up,” he said of Sergey Brin, president of Alphabet, after the executive said he was “too busy” to make it to court.

Sergey_Brin
Sergey Brin, seated on the left, is a co-founder of Google and president of Waymo's parent firm, Alphabet. Alsup scolded him for failing to appear at a preliminary hearing for the Waymo-Uber case.

Alsup also scolded Waymo for being “greedy” after the company asked to include a list of more than 100 different trade secrets Uber allegedly stole to be argued at trial. Alsup had previously asked the company to narrow the list down to 9.

“You can’t have everything,” he told the self-driving giant. “You want 121? I’ll give you that. We can push this out another couple of years and they’ll have cars on the street because you’re being greedy.”

But Uber hasn’t escaped Alsup’s frustrations, either.

After repeatedly missing deadlines to hand over requested materials, Alsup lashed out at the rideshare behemoth, saying they “misled the judge time and time again” and allowing Waymo to tell the jury Uber withheld evidence from the case.

In a second blow to Uber, Alsup also said that Anthony Levandowski, the former Google employee being charged with stealing more than 14,000 files from the company before departing for Uber, could be called to testify in the case, despite Levandowski previously invoking his Fifth Amendment rights.

And in a nearly unprecedented move, Alsup also referred the high-profile case to federal prosecutors, opening it up for criminal investigation. The recommendation suggests that Alsup believes there’s a serious chance Uber committed federal crimes—and the outspoken judge has said as much.

“You have one of the strongest records I’ve seen for a long time of anybody doing something that bad,” he told Waymo’s lawyers after reviewing some of the evidence they submitted earlier this year. “Good for you.”

The outcome certainly won’t be good for one of the parties involved—and if it’s anything like the Oracle case, the legal battle could drag on for years.

It’s a good thing Alsup loves backpacking—he’ll likely need all the endurance he can summon to get through the ensuing quagmire.

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