Googlers Told to Avoid Words Like ‘Share’ and ‘Bundle,’ US Says

There are some things Googlers must never say in writing about Google, according to an old memo the US government dug up for its monopoly case.

(Bloomberg) — There are some things Googlers must never say in writing about Google, according to an old memo the US government dug up for its monopoly case.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google is on trial in Washington DC over US allegations that it illegally maintained a monopoly in the online search business. Executives of the Mountain View, California-based behemoth have known for years that the company’s practices are under a microscope, and have encouraged its employees to avoid creating lasting records of potential problematic conduct, government lawyers allege.

Googlers often communicate with one another internally using the company’s Google Chat product. Under a policy called “Communicate with Care,” the Justice Department asserts, Googlers receive training that instructs them to have sensitive conversations over chat with history off — meaning the conversation is auto-deleted after 24 hours.

To underscore the point, Justice Department attorney Kenneth Dintzer presented a trial exhibit Monday with an October 2021 chat from Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. “Need the link for my leaders circle tomorrow,” the executive said.

And in the next line: “Also can we change the setting of this group to history off… thanks.”

This and other evidence at the trial would show Google “hid and destroyed documents because they knew they were violating the antitrust laws,” Dintzer said in his opening statement. 

Google declined to comment.

As far back as 2003, Google managers circulated unambiguous instructions on phrases to avoid to ensure they don’t come across like monopolists.

We “have to be sensitive about antitrust considerations,” Google Chief Economist Hal Varian wrote in a July 2003 memo, unearthed by government lawyers who are suing Alphabet. “We should be careful about what we say in both public and private.”

One phrase to avoid, Varian said: “Cutting off their air supply.” He was referring to a quip used years earlier by then-Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, when his company was under federal antitrust scrutiny.

Another no-no, according to a 2009 Varian missive: “Market share.” Instead, when referring to Google’s portion of the search market, use the term “query share.” Penny Chu, the recipient of Varian’s email, responded in the affirmative. “Yes, absolutely.” Such instructions constitute “the one big thing I remember from all that Legal training,” Chu wrote, ending the sentence with a sideways smiley.

The term “share” is a sensitive topic inside the ‘Plex. Google commands close to 90% of the market for search queries, and, as a result, it collects the majority of the revenue raised from ads situated alongside those results, data show. The Justice Department and a smattering of state attorneys general allege that Google struck unlawful agreements with other big tech companies, including Apple Inc., to give Google’s search tools prime real estate on the electronics, like smartphones, that people use every day.

Those pacts prevented competitors including Microsoft and DuckDuckGo from gaining traction in search, government attorneys allege. Google’s attorneys deny that it has hampered competition, saying that consumers choose its search engine because its technology is superior.

Even if growing a search empire is perfectly legal, Googlers are instructed to avoid taking chances in any communications that might be saved, government lawyers say. Another internal presentation from March 2011, titled “Antitrust Basics for Search Team,” tells employees: 

  • Avoid discussions of “scale” and “network effects”
  • We do not “leverage” anything
  • We don’t “lock up” or “lock in” our users/partners
  • We don’t “bundle” or “tie” products together
  • Avoid metaphors involving wars or sports, winning or losing

During the trial, Dintzer pressed Varian on the question of “antitrust training” at Google. When Varian said he couldn’t remember whether he’d taken it, Dintzer tried to jog his memory. “Avoid references to markets or market shares or dominance,” Dintzer said, citing an internal document.

Varian was unmoved. “I may have had informal communication with lawyers about matters of law of this nature,” Varian said. “But I don’t specifically recall having a class in this subject.”

–With assistance from Leah Nylen.

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