Facepalm: The US Department of Justice has asked the DC District Court for an injunction and “appropriate relief” over Goggle’s use of self-deleting chat software. The DoJ claims that Google has effectively been destroying evidence over the last several years using the “history off” feature of Google Chat.
The so-called “history off” feature is available in Google’s teleconferencing software — Google Chat, formerly known as Hangouts. It is more accurately just a history setting that automatically deletes conversations after 24 hours if it is disabled (set to “off”). While it is not illegal for companies to use the feature or even manually delete conversations, it is unlawful to do so during ongoing litigation, which is the DoJ’s primary complaint.
In a motion filed Thursday, Justice officials say that Google should have turned its internal chat and Hangouts history on in 2019 when it became evident that antitrust lawsuits related to the company’s advertising business were forthcoming. At the very least, Google should have enabled history in 2020 when the Justice Department filed the lawsuits. However, the sanctions request states that Google continued to “systematically” destroy evidence until just earlier this week.
“For nearly four years, Google systematically destroyed an entire category of written communications every 24 hours,” the filing states.
Instead of internally setting chat histories to “on,” Google left it up to employees to decide if their conversations needed to be preserved for future legal proceedings. The DoJ claims that most of them left the setting disabled.
Google denies any wrongdoing and says it has complied with the DoJ’s every request.
“[We] strongly refute the DOJ’s claims,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC. “Our teams have conscientiously worked for years to respond to inquiries and litigation. In fact, we have produced over 4 million documents in this case alone, and millions more to regulators around the world.”
The Justice Department’s complaint points to evidence from Epic’s antitrust suit against Google that seems to confirm that Google employees knowingly and routinely conducted “sensitive” discussions in a manner that did not leave a record.
“Since it’s a sensitive topic, I prefer to discuss offline or over hangout,” read a quote from one of Epic’s discovery documents.
The DoJ stated it is not interested in delaying the litigation or reopening the discovery process. It just wants “appropriate sanctions” for Google’s destruction of potential evidence.
“The United States is not seeking to reopen fact discovery, and this motion does not affect the trial date nor the outstanding summary judgment,” the filing reads. “This motion only seeks to determine the appropriate sanctions to redress Google’s destruction of written communications.”
The DoJ asks the court to compel Google to turn over any and all communications regarding what it told employees regarding off-the-record conversations and how specific it was in its instructions involving the preservation of written communication. It also asks that the company produce any witnesses with knowledge of Google’s preservation policies so that DoJ officials can depose testimony before evidentiary hearings proceed.