DOJ Urges Judge To Sanction Google For Destroying Chats

The Department of Justice has asked a federal judge to sanction Google for allegedly deleting internal chat messages that could have yielded evidence relevant to the government's antitrust case against the company.

“For years, Google empowered, and even encouraged, its employees to engage in 'history off' written communications -- known by Google employees as 'off the record' chats -- which were then automatically destroyed after 24 hours,” the Justice Department writes in papers filed with U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C. The papers, filed on February 10, were unsealed on Thursday.

The Justice Department argues that Google was obligated to “suspend its auto-delete practices in mid-2019,” when it could have anticipated the lawsuit.

Instead, “for nearly four years, Google systematically destroyed an entire category of written communications every 24 hours,” the government alleges.



A Google spokesperson says the company "strongly" refutes the Justice Department's claims.

"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 spokesperson said.

The motion for sanctions comes in an antitrust lawsuit brought by federal and state authorities in late 2000, when they alleged that Google obtained dominance in search by arranging to be the default search engine in Mozilla's Firefox browser and Apple's Safari browser, and by arranging to have its search engine pre-installed on Android smartphones.

The Justice Department writes that Google waited until late last month to provide the government with its policy regarding the retention of "chat" messages.

“Google consciously failed to preserve relevant evidence,” the government writes. “The daily destruction of relevant evidence was inevitable when Google set a companywide default to delete history-off chat messages every 24 hours.”

The Justice Department adds that Google employees “intentionally steered conversations away from email and toward chats, sometimes explicitly requesting that the history remain off.”

For example, the government said, an email exchange between two potential witnesses included the sentence: “[W]e should chat live so you can get the history; best to not put in email.”

Google also faces accusations of failing to preserve evidence in an antitrust lawsuit underway in California, where a coalition of attorneys general, Epic Games and others are suing the company over its app store policies.

In that California case, Google said in court papers that it automatically preserves "chat threads within threaded rooms/spaces" in which employees who are obligated to preserve evidence participate, and also told those employees not to use Google Chat to discuss topics relevant to the litigation. 

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