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Judge sanctions Google for deleting internal chat logs central to antitrust cases

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks at a panel at the CEO Summit of the Americas hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. | Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A California federal judge has sanctioned Google for intentionally deleting or failing to preserve chat records central to a series of lawsuits accusing the company of abusing its market power in app sales, despite a court ordering the tech giant to maintain the internal communications.

On Tuesday, Judge James Donato of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California sided with the plaintiffs in the suits and ordered Google to pay the attorney fees and other costs they incurred as a result of its actions.

The judge also left open the possibility of issuing more sanctions against Google after all parties have finished gathering evidence.

At the same time, Donato declined to issue terminating sanctions, which would have decided the case against Google based upon its failure to preserve the chats.

The penalty came just a day after The Standard reported that the plaintiffs said that they had uncovered “a company-wide culture of concealment coming from the very top” of the tech giant and accused CEO Sundar Pichai of direct involvement in deleting evidence.

Google did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. The company has previously denied deleting chat logs.

A sign is posted in front of an office at Google headquarters on February 02, 2023 in Mountain View, California. Google parent company Alphabet reported lower-than-expected fourth quarter revenue with net income $13.62 billion, or $1.05 per share, compared to $20.64 billion, or $1.53 per share, one year ago.
Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. The company is accused of deleting internal communications crucial to a high-stakes antitrust case. | Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images | Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The judge’s ruling relates to four antitrust cases in which two tech companies, attorneys general of 37 states and the District of Columbia and millions of individuals allege that Google uses the Google Play Store’s app-selling market position to charge commissions so large that they violate antitrust laws.

In their filing a day earlier, these plaintiffs said that internal communications Google submitted as part of the case showed the company’s employees—including Pichai—deleting or attempting to prevent conversations in Google Chat from being preserved.

In reviewing the findings, Donato concluded that Google employees were “no strangers to document production and discovery obligations.” The company urges its employees to be cautious about what they communicate through emails and chats and trains them to make their communications subject to attorney-client privilege, thereby shielding them from disclosure.

Google has claimed that chat is mostly used for casual or personal conversations, but the company actually uses it to discuss substantial business matters, Donato said in his findings.

Although Google has the technical ability to make Google Chat preserve conversation history as the default setting, it chose not to do that for employees subject to a legal hold and also took no steps to ensure that these employees abided by the court order to preserve communications, according to the filing.

“Overall, the record demonstrates that Google employees who received a litigation hold in this case were unable or unwilling to follow the Chat preservation instructions, and sometimes disregarded the instructions altogether,” Donato wrote. 

Google is currently embroiled in a series of lawsuits accusing it of anti-competitive behavior.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against it for allegedly monopolizing search and search advertising. In January, the Justice Department and eight state attorneys general, including California’s Rob Bonta, sued the tech giant for monopolizing digital advertising technology.

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