Google accused of concealing documents via secrecy of lawyer-client exchanges

The legal war between antitrust authorities and Google is in full swing. The US Department of Justice revealed on March 21 that it had filed a motion in a Washington DC court, dated March 8. She accuses Google of concealing documents as part of an investigation for illegal monopoly. Mountain View is accused of abusing the protection of attorney-client correspondence, to redact the contents of certain elements of the file.

Employees at all levels trained to mobilize lawyer-client secrecy

The Department of Justice accuses (pdf) Google of having trained its employees in the use of attorney-client privilege to conceal routine business communications in litigation and government investigations “. A program called “Communicate with Care” would be entirely devoted to this mission for almost a decade.

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The directive to add a company lawyer to a chain message was said to have been repeated at least twice. A first time in 2016, on the occasion of the launch of the investigation by the European Commission for abuse of a dominant position with Android. The second when the investigation by prosecutors and the US Department of Justice was triggered into the group’s research and advertising activities.

Concretely, Google employees added standard phrases in their email chains of the type pls advise, privileged, adding legal, etc., thousands of documents are appended with this type of term. A lawyer is also copied on the discussions. As many future justification to transmit, if necessary, redacted documents to justice.

For the US government, these communications are not genuine requests for legal advice, but rather an effort to hide potential evidence “. The prosecution presents several examples deemed edifying.

In March 2020, a Google VP openly said in a discussion about trade negotiations that he was adding a lawyer because his post would contain ” trigger words “. In this case, the Justice Department reports that “ The lawyer included did not respond to any of the chain’s next 25 or so emails and was eventually removed from the thread entirely, confirming that his inclusion was not for the legitimate purpose of seeking legal advice. “.

Sundar Pichai himself, the CEO of Google and CEO of Alphabet, would have done so during an exchange with Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube. The lawyer assistant to the conversation would never have answered. For antitrust authorities, lawyers, in confidence, have become accustomed to not even bothering to respond to a large number of similar additions.

For Google, broom! There is nothing to see

Google spokesperson denies the charges. The company defended itself to the media Axios stating that ” Like other US companies, we educate our employees about legal privileges and when to seek legal advice. And we produced more than four million documents to the DOJ in this case alone – including many documents that employees had deemed potentially confidential. “.

The applicants ask the judge for a sanction against the company and accuse it of having ” ordered production in full of withheld and redacted emails in which a company lawyer was included in a non-lawyer communication and did not respond “.

The Department of Justice also asks the court to take into account Google’s reluctance in the transmission of key information. The antitrust authorities have accused the giant since 2021 of having transmitted partial documents without any reason to delay the investigation. So many battles are fought and will continue to be fought by the antitrust authorities and Mountain View, whose objective is to win the war or, at least, to postpone its outcome as long as possible.

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