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.
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.”
Oracle didn’t just bankroll Davis’ group: It had previously bankrolled his host, too. The event was put on by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal network that has helped elevate the careers of judges including Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Oracle gave between $100,000 and $499,000 to the Federalist Society in 2019, according to corporate disclosures. Neither Oracle nor Davis responded to questions from Grid, including questions about Oracle’s funding of the Internet Accountability Project.
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.”
Polisner resigned in protest from Oracle not long after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. At the time, Oracle executives were rapidly forging a close alliance with the incoming president. Ellison held a fundraiser for Trump at his private, $43 million Rancho Mirage estate, charging $100,000 a head for guests to take a photo with the new president. The fundraiser reportedly raised $7 million.
Safra Catz, the company’s CEO, visited Trump Tower and joined the Trump transition team along with Ken Glueck, who leads Oracle’s Washington lobbying. Catz also gave $125,000 to the Trump Victory fund, a committee supporting Trump’s campaign.
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.
Beyond calling Oracle’s Ellison “a tremendous guy,” Trump considered nominating Catz for an administration post, according to reports at the time. Later on, Oracle emerged as the administration’s preferred U.S. buyer of the social media platform TikTok when Trump targeted the company, saying its Chinese ownership raised national security concerns.
After covid hit the United States in 2020, Trump started asking his advisers about hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment after discussing it with Ellison, who “helped convince” the president the medicine could be “game-changing,” according to the Washington Post. Following one phone call, Trump reportedly asked his top medical advisers, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, if there was a way to speed hydroxychloroquine through the regulatory process.
Ellison also helped arrange a partnership between Oracle and the federal government to collect data from covid patients on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. The malaria drug had not undergone clinical trials for treating covid at the time, and studies have since shown it does not help improve outcomes for covid patients.
Oracle’s relationship with Trump faced a test on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Most of Silicon Valley rushed to condemn the violence, through public statements and internal communications to their employees. Ellison and Catz did neither, Insider reported.
Eleven days later, Oracle announced it would pause donations “to anyone who voted against certifying the November 2020 election results.” The company routed donations in the days and months after to committees helping reelect Republican lawmakers, including those who opposed certification, FEC records show. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) held a fundraiser at Oracle’s Capitol Hill town house, after he promoted false election fraud concerns and called the Jan. 6 select committee “a partisan political charade.”
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.
In fact, a Grid analysis found Oracle spends more than its competitors on lobbying, when the companies’ sizes are considered, lobbying disclosures show. While Google and Amazon spend more than Oracle on federal lobbying, they are much larger operations. In 2021, Oracle reported annual revenue of $40.5 billion; Alphabet, Google’s parent, reported $257 billion in revenue; and Amazon reported bringing in almost $470 billion. But Oracle spends significantly more on federal lobbying as a percentage of its revenue — nearly seven times more, Grid found. Given the opportunity to comment, neither Google nor Amazon responded in time for publication of this article.
Rivalries and aggression
The anti-Big Tech rhetoric dominating Washington today echoes years of aggression from Oracle toward technology companies it has considered rivals.
Over 20 years ago, Oracle and Microsoft were the world’s top software companies. Microsoft was up against one of its biggest challenges since its founding: a Justice Department suit charging the company violated antitrust law when it packaged its operating systems with Microsoft software.
Although the issues did not directly relate to Oracle’s own operations, Oracle reportedly lobbied Justice to take up the case, and Ellison was one of the only Silicon Valley CEOs to speak against Microsoft during its antitrust trial. He testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that shopping different brands of computers that use Microsoft products “feels to me a little like a Soviet supermarket.”
Oracle also hired private investigators to dig into outside groups it suspected were being funded by Microsoft. The snooping was eventually disclosed and generated headlines when the company admitted it had hired the investigators. Ellison reportedly declared Oracle’s campaign against Microsoft, investigators included, “a public service.”
“Left undisclosed, these Microsoft front groups could have improperly influenced the outcome of one of the most important antitrust cases in U.S. history,” Oracle said in a statement at the time.
Microsoft ultimately settled the case and agreed to change its business practices, yet continued to grow far beyond Oracle’s size. Meanwhile, a wave of new internet and social media companies surpassed Oracle in value. Several of them would draw fire from Ellison and Oracle, particularly one: Google.
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.
The lawsuit generated great animosity between Oracle and Google. As it progressed, once-popular Google found itself facing negative headlines and new scrutiny from lawmakers over its position in the tech world. Later, Fortune would report that a senior vice president at Oracle told a Google executive that Oracle was carrying out a “vendetta” against the search giant.
When Google and other Silicon Valley companies opposed an anti-sex-trafficking bill in Congress, Oracle threw its support behind it. According to Recode, the company pushed stories critical of Google to the media, like a 2017 report in Quartz that Android had been secretly tracking the location of its users. At one point, Oracle purchased a billboard in Tennessee, the home state of privacy critic Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R), that claimed internet companies had “sold your most sensitive and personal information for $125 billion in advertising revenue last year,” Recode reported. Oracle, which does not run social media platforms, does not rely on advertising revenue for its profits.
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.
Over time, the animosity between Oracle and Google became increasingly personal. Oracle CEO Catz testified during the Supreme Court case that a run-in with Google’s general counsel Kent Walker at a Bat Mitzvah turned testy.
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
Mike Davis has a formidable resume. He is a former law clerk for current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and has worked multiple stints on Capitol Hill, most recently as an adviser for court nominations to Grassley, then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He helped steer the confirmation of Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court justice, as well as nearly 300 additional judges who were confirmed during Trump’s presidency.
Davis left Congress in 2019, a few months after Kavanaugh was confirmed. Later that year, he created the Internet Accountability Project, an advocacy group with the stated mission of reining in Big Tech “before it’s too late.” On social media and in news outlets, IAP has worked to stir up attention for several issues under debate in Congress: using antitrust law to break up Big Tech; amending Section 230, which helps legally shield social media companies from liability for statements users make on their platforms; and addressing perceived bias against right-wing figures on social media.
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.
An adviser to IAP testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the harm of Big Tech and the need for antitrust reform. IAP filed a brief in the ongoing lawsuit between Google and Oracle, which in 2020 reached the Supreme Court, without disclosing its Oracle funding, something allowed by the court’s ethics rules. In the brief, IAP attests that “none of the parties or their counsel, nor any other person or entity other than amicus or its counsel, made a monetary contribution intended to fund the preparation or submission of this brief.”
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.”
Davis told Politico no Oracle funds were used to prepare IAP’s brief. “He’s hiding behind the Speech or Debate Clause, and he should make these same accusations on the sidewalk so we can sue him,” Davis told the publication.
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.
Three people who lead IAP — Davis, lawyer Will Chamberlain and former Trump Justice Department spokesperson Ian Prior — also colead two other small dark money groups. One of them, the Article III Project, pushed opposition research claiming Supreme Court Justice-Designate Ketanji Brown Jackson took a lenient approach to sentencing in cases involving images of child sex abuse to the press and on social media. “Jackson’s record shielding child predators from the punishment and justice they deserve should trouble every sane person,” Davis said in one statement the group tweeted.
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.”
Davis is no stranger to social media sanction. He has been suspended by Twitter four times, by his count. Two were for making offensive references to “The Gimp,” the leather-clad sex slave/servant character from the 1994 movie “Pulp Fiction.”
Davis claims his suspensions are evidence of Twitter’s bias against conservatives. “I am clearly being targeted by the platform because I don’t think like the rest of Silicon Valley and regularly criticize Twitter,” Davis said in a statement after his fourth suspension. In one instance, Davis posted an email from Twitter saying his account was flagged “by mistake” — Davis still asserted the real reason for the suspension had been political bias. Davis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Davis, alongside other right-wing critics of social media like Musk, argues that Twitter’s attempts at moderating social media silence dissent, especially from conservatives. Studies have shown that conservative voices actually dominate social media, especially Facebook, where the top-performing posts are often by conservative personalities Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro. What remains to be seen is whether Twitter under Musk would be able to fulfill that vision of a social media company with little moderation.
“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.
Allowing the worst actors of all political stripes onto Twitter could feed engagement. It could also worsen the toxicity of discourse on the site, something Twitter employees have warned against, and reduce the overall quality of the platform — and even the safety of its users.
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.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.