Judge criticizes Uber’s secrecy in lawsuit with Waymo

Google’s side of the story in its patent and trade secret case against Uber is pretty damning — Google alleges that a former employee of its self-driving car unit, Anthony Levandowski, stole thousands of sensitive documents on his way out the door to lead Uber’s self-driving efforts. But, as an attorney for Uber told reporters last week, Uber would very much like all of this to be resolved in arbitration between Google’s Waymo and Levandowski rather than in open court.

That desire for secrecy is on full display in a new, heavily redacted motion Uber filed in the case today, asking for the dispute to be forced into arbitration based on the employment contract Levandowski signed with Google. Arbitration would have several benefits for Uber — it would distance the company from the allegations of theft leveraged against Levandowski, and it would keep the proceedings out of the public eye.

“Waymo especially should not be allowed to avoid arbitration where it has alleged pervasive collusion between Levandowski and Defendants, and where its claims are connected with, and founded on, Levandowski’s alleged misconduct while he was a Waymo employee — conduct that his employment contracts governed,” Uber argued. “Waymo’s purpose for proceeding in this curious manner seems clear: through artful pleading, it hopes to avoid arbitrating the misappropriation and UCL [unfair competition law] claims at all costs.”

Waymo claims that, regardless of Levandowski’s employment contract, Uber is still infringing on its patents and so the case needs to move forward.

Judge William Alsup, who is presiding over the case, slammed Uber’s heavy redactions and told both companies to sort out what actually needs to be kept secret from Levandowski’s employment contract. 

“Our federal courts belong to the public, and the public and the press have a legitimate interest in looking over our shoulders to see the work in progress in our courts. The essence of our work concerns evaluating competing arguments. Parties should not hide those arguments under seal out of a desire to shroud business dealings in secrecy,” he wrote.

The two companies are due back in court on May 3 to debate a preliminary injunction that would prevent Uber from using Waymo technology while the lawsuit is underway. Judge Alsup has asked Uber and Waymo to come up with code names for Waymo’s trade secrets so that they can be referenced during the public hearing.

Update, 2 p.m. PT: Uber said in a new filing that the redactions are all Google’s fault and that it wanted to file an unredacted brief in the first place. “Uber applied the redactions based on Google’s insistence that the existence of an arbitration and every word in its employment agreements must be kept in strictest confidence – we are trying to confer with them further on that issue now,” an attorney for Uber wrote.