Google intentionally sought to “hide the ball” in a high-profile antitrust case by automatically deleting employee chat messages that could have been used as evidence in the suit, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, dealing a blow to the tech giant.
The ruling condemns Google’s document preservation practices and their impact on litigation, which could have a broader impact as the company defends a range of suits on multiple fronts.
Google will not face immediate sanctions for its missteps apart from having to cover the legal fees that plaintiffs incurred in bringing the sanctions motion, wrote Judge James Donato in his order. A non-monetary penalty could still be imposed following further court proceedings. But Donato repeatedly criticized Google this week for trying to keep sensitive chat logs out of the record.
“The Court concludes that Google intended to subvert the discovery process, and that Chat evidence was ‘lost with the intent to prevent its use in litigation’ and ‘with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation,’” Donato wrote.
In what Donato described as a “fundamental problem,” Google appeared to turn a blind eye to employees’ liberal use of a chat feature that deletes the logs after 24 hours, according to the ruling. The feature enabled Google employees to have conversations about topics relevant to its app store practices — and the topic of the lawsuit — with greater confidence the messages would not be used in court. Employees were also given the discretion to determine for themselves what constituted conversations that needed to be preserved, Donato wrote.
That was “in sharp contrast” to how Google automatically preserves company emails that are subject to a litigation hold, he added, saying that Google omitted any mention of its practices surrounding chats until it was specifically forced to address the matter by the plaintiffs’ sanctions motion.
The Justice Department has filed a similar sanctions motion against Google in an ongoing antitrust suit over Google’s search business. Though that case is unfolding in a different federal court, Donato’s ruling Tuesday could give other courts more ammunition to reach the same conclusion.
In a statement, Google said it has endeavored to meet its discovery obligations.
“Our teams have conscientiously worked, for years, to respond to Epic and the state AGs’ discovery requests and we have produced over three million documents, including thousands of chats,” said a Google spokexperson. “We’ll continue to show the court how choice, security, and openness are built into Android and Google Play.”