The engineer at the heart of a years-long dispute between two of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies, Uber and Google, is facing federal charges that could send him to prison in the latest twist in a seemingly never-ending legal saga.
In a new indictment unsealed on Tuesday, federal prosecutors allege that Anthony Levandowski, the star self-driving executive who decamped from Google’s Waymo subsidiary and eventually joined Uber in 2016, allegedly stole Google’s intellectual property when he headed out the door. Levandowski is being charged with 33 counts of theft or attempted theft.
People thought this case was basically closed back in February 2018 when Uber and Waymo reached a settlement. But apparently not.
“All of us have the right to change jobs,” US Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”
No one would blame you for having trouble following all the back and forth between the two tech giants — and now the federal government is involved, too. Here’s how Uber and Google got here.
The first case
Early in 2017, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, filed a lawsuit against Uber alleging that Levandowski stole trade secrets — amounting to 14,000 confidential files — from Alphabet’s celebrated self-driving arm, Waymo. The stolen files included designs for Light Detection and Ranging, or Lidar, technology, which is seen as essential to self-driving tech.
Levandowski spent six months after leaving Google at his own self-driving startup, Otto, which Uber would then go on to acquire. Uber eventually made him the head of its own self-driving division, which the ride-hailing company is depending on to eventually become a profitable business.
The lawsuit had many ups and downs, with fights over document production, invocations of a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Levandowski’s eventual ouster from Uber, attempted depositions of Google’s famously publicity-averse founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and delays upon delays. It was made all the more dramatic because Alphabet had been an investor in Uber and the two had once been seen as allies.
Eventually, in early February 2018, the case proceeded to court in a high-stakes, closely watched battle. Uber founder Travis Kalanick took the stand. So did celebrity Silicon Valley investors.
But less than a week after the trial kicked off, there was a sudden breakthrough: Uber and Waymo reached an unexpected settlement, with Uber giving Waymo $245 million worth of its stock (Uber was still a private company at the time).
Uber did not admit any fault, but it made sense for Uber to put the matter to rest, as Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan explained at the time:
Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber was bad for Uber. That’s an understatement. In the midst of an already scandal-ridden year, the messy, public lawsuit exposed the company’s internal messages, questionable competitive practices and resulted in the termination of at least one top executive.
More than that, it put Uber’s self-driving efforts at risk. If Alphabet could convince a jury that Uber worked with Anthony Levandowski, a former top engineer at both companies, to steal trade secrets, Uber could have been forced to stop using any and all technology that incorporated Alphabet’s alleged trade secrets and pay out millions, if not billions, in damages.
That’s not a great situation to be in if you’re a company attempting to refurbish your image and go public in 2019. In other words: Uber needed to settle.
And now, the second case
So, case closed, no? That’s what Silicon Valley thought — until Tuesday morning, when prosecutors charged Levandowski with theft and attempted theft. The former star engineer could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted in what will likely be another high-drama courtroom battle.
The case is a somewhat aggressive move by the US Attorney’s office in San Francisco, but as the New Yorker reported last year, this isn’t uncharted territory. Silicon Valley companies sometimes will approach prosecutors to try and trigger criminal investigations into competitors, though there’s no evidence Google did that here.
“This case rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago,” Levandowski’s attorneys said in a statement to Recode. “Anthony is innocent, and we look forward to proving it at trial.”
Uber didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI on this case,” a Waymo spokesperson told Recode.